Assessing the Monks of Doom's Meridian 20 years on
Masterpiece or Tragic "Lost" Album?Making lists is something music nerds do... a lot! Whenever I share my list of the best albums of the '90's, I usually get nods of recognition and agreement: "Loveless... check, Icky Mettle... check, Exile in Guyville... check, Nevermind... check, Trompe Le Monde... That is until the sharee comes to one entry. Then their reaction invariably is "Huh! What is that?" The album in question: Meridian by The Monks of Doom.
By G. E. Light
The Monks began life as kind of a rhythm section side project of Camper Van Beethoven. But when that band inevitably split over being too young and getting too famous together in rural Sweden, The Monks became a proper primary output for the musical ideas of Victor Krummenacher (bass), Greg Lisher (guitar), and Chris Pedersen (drums). By this time they had added David Immerglück (guitar), late of The Ophelias and a mid-season replacement pickup for CVB in their gloaming.
The story of the Monks of Doom is both an object lesson in how the music industry used to work and a cautionary tale about the difficulties of said lifestyle/pursuit. Its ultimate tragedy is what happened to Meridian, one of those great albums I bet you've never heard, long since out of print. As a special treat, Krummenacher has agreed to let some album tracks be available for streaming on SoundCloud in perpetuity: "There's no money in me re-releasing Meridian now, even though the band totally owns/controls its own masters"; sometimes you win a important battle but ultimately lose the war! Links to these streaming MP3s will be clickable below in the track-by-track appreciation.
THE MONKS' BACK STORY
As previously stated, the Monks of Doom began life as a side project for Camper Van Beethoven. Founded in 1986 the quartet consisted of Krummenacher, Lisher, Pedersen and Chris Molla on guitar. After 6 months, Molla was fired from Camper for a lack of commitment. He also left the Monks and was quickly replaced in both bands by Immerglück.
The next year The Monks released their first album, a conceptual soundtrack to the film, Breakfast on the Beach of Deception, but much like the band's origins, the film itself was "imaginary." The first record was "a free-form freak out," according to Krummenacher. Taking a small reserve of extra cash, the band went into a studio and fooled around, somehow ending up with a proper record.
In early 1989, the Monk's second record The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company represented a move towards more lyric-driven songs. Made concurrently with Camper's final record Key Lime Pie, the Monks played around with their two-pronged guitar attack and added highly intelligent lyrics by Krummenacher based on his UCSC English degree and interest in classic and Beatnik literature. Victor sees this record as a bridge between the first two eras of The Monks. Then came the debacle of CVB's final European tour and a messy divorce/breakup somewhere above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Northern Sweden, well probably Upsala. And that's where our story about Meridian really begins in earnest because Monks of Doom decided to become a real primary band not just an experimental side project. This newfound focus' first result was Meridian, and now we come to how the disc came to be.
THE MAKING OF MERIDIAN
Looking back, Krummenacher talked about how he now records:(I do it) in the moment, in like one take. Set up the mikes and go; that's how I do it now. Get that live vibe. I can't do what I did twenty years ago, man. I'm too old and tired and I don't do a lot of those substances I did as a kid. Remember, I started in Camper Van Beethoven when I was in high school, so I was only 26 or so when The Monks took off.But back then, Krummenacher remembers a completely different state of recording:The typical modus operandi was: Set up in the rehearsal studio Turn on the tape deck Play off the top of our heads until exhausted Listen back Isolate cool bits ands work them up into something exciting! We did hours and hours and hours and hours of jamming. When we were writing, we were basically improvising twenty hours a week or more.Out of such epic recording jams came the ultimately focused coherent brilliance of Meridian, which we shall examine more closely in just a sec. Lisher remembered the making of the record this way: "Not sure I have a fondest memory but and overall memory of having a good time recording and playing with everybody."
So the post-Camper Monks made a wonderful record for their exciting new record label, Moist/Baited Breath, a long since forgotten indie out of North Carolina. Then the trouble began. As part and parcel of the financial collapse of Rough Trade US and its distribution network (ask my college classmates Dean Wareham and Damon Krukowski how that affected the end of their career as Galaxie 500 or read about it in Black Postcards), Moist/Baited Breath collapsed into bankruptcy not 6 months after pressing and first release of Meridian. Any buzz generated from positive press reviews died quickly as the few CD's left in stores disappeared never to be replaced with new product. I bought my copy fearly from CD Warehouse in Sunnyvale on the El Camino. Some months later when I tried to get a cop for a friend, nada, zip, zilch. And no restocking in sight. Krummenacher ruminates: "I did a thorough forensic accounting. That whole deal cost each member of the band at least $20,000 and probably more." Here's a case where even when the band owned their own masters, they were helpless to combat general market forces aligned against them.
The tragedy of Meridian is that it is a special kind of "lost" album, not unreleased like the Beach Boy's infamous Smile, but rather released and then in essence pulled never to be available again in any format until some live videos of Monks performances began showing up on YouTube and today, with the unveiling of some streaming MP3s I have mounted at SoundCloud and linked here with the express written consent of the Commissioner as well as The Monks of Doom: "Hey man, we hold the rights, so feel free to upload anything from the CD."
A TRACK-BY-TRACK APPRECIATION
Krummenacher's description of Meridian is as good a place as any to start: "On the third record we figured out that we were this really unique blend of post-punk and prog rock. That's where we blend the folkier and the weirder stuff, bring together the Neil Young and the Captain Beefheart, King Crimson and The Fall, the Richard Thompson and Can, and all these odd influences we were voraciously consuming at the time, and get away with it,"
"Cherry Blossom Baptism"
The album and track open with a simple snare cymbal beat and then Lisher and Immerglück producing an instrumental collection of chiming intervals, producing a modernist classical effect straight out of the Nelybel compositional playbook. Then the trippy psychedelia pedal efx start occurring in the form of Krummenacher's ominous lyrics like "From the city of Basra to Jerusalem ... The man behind the man behind the curtain is working/Pulling levers by his crystal ball."
Krummenacher described the song this way:Not really aware of him. I remember "Cherry Blossom" being a jam that started with Immy on the electric mando and us trying to work in some heavier Beatles kind of psychedalia into it.Yet more wacky neo-folk instrumentation there.
Beginning with a rather insistently repetitive set of riffs between the two guitars and Krummernacher's bass, Immerglück takes lead vocals as Lisher labors over a very precise solo of low neck picking. This is also the first time we see Victor's interest in the classic Breschtian sprechgesang tradition rear its head. A nod towards both the narrativity of these songs as well as their more flamboyantly dramatic features (both sonic and lyric). "Yeah," said Krummenacher, "Post-Camper, I really tried to focus on narrative flow and dramatic structure in my songwriting, especially vis-à-vis lyrics that seemed more and more to want to tell stories, epic tales really. I guess that's the old English major in me."
"Turn It On Himself"
Yet another display of guitar FX pyrotechnics.
This short instrumental and another later on the album sounded suspiciously like a musical interlude to me. I asked Victor Krummenacher and he replied, "Yeah, that was the intention."
"Door to Success"
The closest thing this album has to a straight pop single except of course for the revved up guitar riffs. The shouted/spoken lyrics are quite reminiscent of Pavement as is the repetitive "la la la la la" refrain. See especially "In The Mouth a Desert," "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence," and "Father to a Sister of Thought."
Whomever this mysterious traveler is, he appears to be a central character, narrator, or even participant in the various adventures and tales which comprise the experiential world of this album. But then I was an Lit guy just like Krummenacher, so maybe I'm over-investing the text with special significance, no? That's what they "pay" me to do, after all.
Demonstrating the folkier side of Monks, this faux tango features Immerglück on ebow generating a violin-like sound, at least according to Segel's best recollection of the epic recording jam sessions.
"The Better Angels Of Our Nature"
The middle section of the album further demonstrates Krummenacher's commitment to narrativized lyrics in the Weill and Brecht sprechgesang tradition straight outta Die Dreigroschenoper.
If only this had been Jack Nicholson's soundtrack back in 1978. Here we widen our worldview to consider a primarily Catholic, non-English speaking South full of ritual and magical realism, especially with the refrain
Un milagro para quitarle la corzon la corzon
Calveras podemos comer
Un milagro para quitarle la corazon la corazon
Calaveras podemos comer
Un milagro para quitarle la corazon la corazon
Calaveras podemos comer
Loosely translated "A miracle to clear one's heart one's heart/The skulls we can eat X3"
"Follow The Queen"
Is it a card game, is it a hustle or is it some Castroland sexual position? Who knows?
Ancient Egyptian mysticism meets shouted Brechtian Sprechtgesang yet again.
"The Harbor Incident"
A kind of pomo sea shanty, belying perhaps Krummenacher's time by the seashore in the Coast range foothills at UC Santa Cruz.
The album's penultimate "real" track begins slowly as an apparent instrumental, but then insistent and repetitive guitars drive a lyric seemingly set in some kind of post-apocalyptic future. We even have a refrain of sorts:
We're just sitting on our hands ([like a satellite])
Waiting for the judgement day
Waiting for the judgement day
Flat on our backs, holding it in
We're just waiting for you, and
Waiting for the judgement day
which drives us toward the inevitable conclusion of a "Circassian Beauty."
See above @ Geode 1 description.
A heavy, heavy album closer. We're clearly placed in the world of a traveling circus/carnival of sorts from the big Top to the Freak show to the calliope sound effects in the middle of the song. In fact, maybe the aforementioned traveler is the top hatted and monocled ringmaster of the album's cover... and it all dissolves into a squall of noise.
Remembering the album in toto and specifically his schizophrenic vocals on the final track, Immerglück proclaimed, "I'm afraid many a promising collegiate brain cell terminally deteriorated under the influence of that album, mine included!"
In 1998, five years after the Monks' initial breakup, the band played "one last show" in San Francisco as drummer Chris Pedersen was moving Down Under. After another five years, Chris is flown in and the band records and does shows up and down California. In 2005, there were more shows and a "covers" CD, which included The Kinks, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Neu!, Wire and Nino Rota amongst others. The final "Farewell" shows occurred in Brooklyn, NY in 2009; here they played a killer version of Syd Barret's late solo classic, "Let's Split" seen here on You Tube:
There's not to going to be a totally happy ending from this piece. The Monks of Doom masterpiece Meridian will never again be in print and/or readily available for purchase. For example, I scoured Austin, Texas the week during SXSW 2011 and could not find even a used CD copy at any place like Waterloo, Cheapos or Antone's. Which is not to say one isnt out there,. just that it ain't easy to find. As Victor Krummenacher told me on the phone, "Sure we [the band] own the rights, but there's no money in it for us to self re-release the record on David Lowery's now Athens, GA-based label Pitch-A-Tent Records (formerly and currently CVB's label) or anywhere else for that matter." Still you can experience the Monks' majesty in at least two ways: 1) live, if you live on the West Coast and can catch one of their infrequent reunion shows including a mini-tour that is happening as I finish this article on March 16th, or 2) virtually, by dint of having read this essay and listened to the linked multimedia sources (YouTube videos and streamed MP3s of actual album tracks). Hopefully you will agree with my assessment that Meridian was truly one of the 90s great albums tragically missed by most folks due to a weird conflation of circumstances, which highlighted the burgeoning problems with the musical industry just as it was leaving the analog era and entering a brave new digital domain.
A Very Special Thanks to Victor Krummenacher, Greg Lisher, and Jonathan Segel for submitting to my prodding and poking. Thanks also tfor the re-use of previously quoted material from Victor Krummernacher and David Immerglück.
03 Turn It On Itself by G E Light
05 Door To Success by G E Light
08 Argentine Dilemma by G E Light
10 Going South by G E Light
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