Monks give me the urge to confess, so here goes. When I first saw the name of the band and that of their debut album, Turn the People, I thought it was going I was going to be listening to an album of sermons by monks from the Monastery of Mellonwah meant to turn people towards Jesus Christ. And while I am always up for a good theological discussion, generating it through an album seems appropriate. It only took a glimpse of the cover to realise how wrong my initial perception was. Instead of chanted hymns, I was treated to a set of songs very reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Released on 7 March 2014, the Monks of Mellonwah’s Turn the People features both self-produced songs and a couple that were worked on by names such as Keith Olsen (who has worked with the Grateful Dead and Ozzy Osbourne amongst others). Originally formed in 2009 by five The King’s School students, the now band of four writes their own songs and have performed in many venues in their home town. While they do sound a lot like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this alternative rock band hailing from Sydney, Australia created their own take on the genre. Members Vikram Kaushik, Joe de la Hoyde, his brother John, and Josh Baissari have written compelling lyrics which makes for great songs.
The band originally released the album’s songs as three different EPs, which they then released as a full-length album. Turn the People is comprised of 13 tracks, including a short, instrumental introduction. The first song, “Ghost Stories”, is as loud as coming of age songs can be. The upbeat tempo swells alongside the intensity of the lyrics, some of which are quite catchy, and ends with a great guitar break. The song felt simple though, lacking a certain level of complexity that great songs have. Kaushik’s singing is beautiful, but suits overproduced pop music perfection more than lead singer of a rock band. The same can be said about the following song on the album, “Vanity”: loud, upbeat, catchy at times, but simple and “pop-perfected”.
An added electronic music feel appears in the album’s second and third songs. The tight beat of “Tear your Hate Apart” feels like an exploration of rock, electronic, and dance fusion which I like. Where this exploration was limited was made up for in the next song, “Pulse,” a rock-electronic-dance mix with a title that reflects well the pulsating sounds it contains.
The album then turns towards a pop rock sound. “Alive for a Minute” reminds me of Muse, but, again, without achieving enough depth for the genre. The overly cleaned-up vocals combined with a slow start builds both in emotion and tempo. It makes this track more pop than rock, despite the great guitar break at the end. “Escaping Alcatraz” is my least favourite title of the album. I felt that all the things that were lacking in the other songs came out full force in this one. It was lacking depth, it was too produced, and most importantly, it lacked a certain rawness one would associate with an escape from Alcatraz.
“Sailing Stones”, a brighter track than the rest thanks in part to the use of orchestral sounds, features deep lyrics, a great melody, and great guitar work, but again the vocals were overproduced. The title track is more of a dance rock song, starting slow and building up to the same level of frenzy as previous electronic dance rock songs on the album. Its lyrics are made to make you think, and the polished vocals here for once fit well with the song. As for “Downfall”, it not only features a great melody, but it is one of the least “simple” songs of the album, which bodes well for the band’s future releases. “Afraid to Die” is another song with a lot of potential, but it has been over polished to the point that something seems lacking, especially in light of its own name.
The band then tucks us in for the end of the album with two mellow songs. “I Belong to You”, with vocals accompanied quite simply with guitars, is a haunting song, the one ballad on the album. “Sky and the Dark Night” is a slow tempo rock song that bids farewell to the listener in a satisfying way.
The album features sets of songs, within each set is featured a certain sound. It could have made for a jarring experience, but instead, the similarities within each set of songs, combined with the order of the sets, turns the album into a showcase of the band’s creativity. While the transitions were at times a little surprising, they were intriguingly so, making the listener hang on for the ride. It reminded me a little of walking through downtown Montreal where, after 10 minutes of walking down one of its main streets, the scenery completely changes but at the same time, retains enough of its character to remind the pedestrian quite clearly that it’s still the same city.
The order of these sets also makes for an album that is about an experience rather than listening to a bunch of tracks. The Monks first welcome you into an agitated place where confusion reigns as they sing about growing pains and identity crises. Then they take you into a high energy electronic dance mood to work off that agitation, finally bringing you gently back down as they sing about acceptance and closure before opening the door and hugging you as you leave. This is why the use of so many genres on one album (alternative, rock, electronic, pop, and dance) is not jarring, but adds to the experience. While it might be argued that the Monks lack an overall sound, I have a feeling that this is their overall sound: creating an experience that spans many genres to share messages important to them. I hope that their next album is not as overly produced, and that they continue exploring different genres and molding them into a coherent whole.
The music itself is great, but the music videos are what hooked me into this band. Their first video, “Swamp Groove” (which won an award at Harold’s Shorts Film Festival), begins with a woman wearing mostly black walking through a greyscale concrete jungle, who steps through a wall of greenery to enter beautiful woods. It felt like a commentary on how the inner desires and promptings of the soul, inherently attracted to beauty, are often denied. Anyone caught in the day to day grind that leaves them exhausted and unfulfilled will no doubt feel her joy at being freed from said grind, be it only for a little bit.
This theme was also touched upon in the video clip to “Ghost Stories”. Filmed in black and white and directed by Bruno Kataoka, it features a tied-up psychiatric patient being “treated” by a nurse. While the patient seems passive at first, he begins to resist, only to be placed in front of a television screen where he watches himself trapped in the set. Combined with the lyrics, one of the interpretations that came to mind is how we tie ourselves up with history, restricting our actions and our lives within its artificial boundaries because the “voice” of society, the forces of which are really powerful, that this is our place and we are stuck, when in reality, we can break free whenever we want, although it would take hard work.
After listening to the album and watching these two clips, it did not come as a surprise to me that Monks of Mellonwah seem to be on their way to international recognition. The band won the Producer’s Choice award for International Rock Band of the Year at the 2012 L.A. Music Awards and have been featured in numerous music magazines, papers, shows, and websites. They toured in Australia and around the world the following year, received extensive airplay, played in May 2013 at Singapore’s Music Matter’s festival, and will tour internationally in 2014. You can listen to their new album at Bandcamp or Soundcloud. You can also take a look at their website.
First published on Blogcritics.
Originally published on Sahar’s Blog on 17 June 2014.