Album Review: Monuments - The Amenuensis
Recently, I was embroiled in a debate over the nature of progressive metal. What was at the heart of the discussion was the old schism between prog and Prog, a distinction that has never been fully sorted out. When spoken, and without the capitalization made apparent, we could be talking about music that either attempts to circumvent traditional structures by exploring musical boundaries, or music that is fully dedicated to playing technically challenging material. Both claim the mantle of progressive, but my mind can only legitimately give the title to one of them. For all the jaw-dropping skill that technical wizardry entails, the music doesn't come across to me as progressing anything but the egos of the players, so I'm not on board with that version of progressive metal.
Monuments approaches progressive metal from that starting point, but at least tries to turn their fretboard gymnastics into something resembling songs. Of course, by doing this, they also leave behind any pretense of being progressive in the traditional sense. What Monuments does is play simple music in a technical fashion, which is sometimes as puzzling as the words make it sound.
Like seemingly everything in metal these days, Monuments crams their songs with riffs that reek of djent, and vocals that throw in harsh elements, as if checking items off a shopping list. In that respect, Monuments has everything going for them that a metal band could ask for, but is that enough? Music always comes down to the songs, and it's there that Monuments baffles me. It's clear by listening to a few moments of any song that they possess all the skill and talent necessary to make great music, both instrumentally and vocally. What happens, however, is that they stay so close to the conventions of the form that there is nothing at all to distinguish them from the dozens of other bands doing the exact same thing.
The press that preceded the album talked about how Monuments was different, because they used their technical riffing to build songs with massive hooks. To be fair, they do try to accomplish that, although I would peg their success a bit lower than they would like. They fall into the all-too-common trap of equating melodic with clean vocals, and massive with loud. Too often, the hooks in these songs are not the catchy bits of melody you would find yourself singing days later, but are instead long shouts of single notes, the kind of thing that is impressive for showing off vocal power, but isn't very interesting to listen to.
If they could meld djent riffing with big hooky choruses, I would happily be talking about how Monuments was taking modern metal in the direction it needs to go, because there is a depressing lack of strong melody these days. But this album doesn't solve that problem, because they are approaching melody from a metal fan's perspective, rather than a songwriter's. The best metal music is the kind where you could imagine turning down the distortion on the amps, while retaining the core of a great song. These songs don't accomplish that feat. They are defined by the dark, sterile production that allows djent to exist.
I like the idea that Monuments has in mind, but I don't know if this album is a result of them missing the mark, or not knowing where they claim to be aiming. Either way, “The Amanuensis” is a fine album for people who listen to nothing but riffs and drums, but doesn't offer enough of it's claimed hooks for me to come back to it. I view it as a missed opportunity, and hopefully a lesson learned for the future.