by Ian Mann
November 30, 2021
Building on the success of their earlier work this album represents their most convincing synthesis of acoustic and electronic sounds to date, building on the legacies of both Miles Davis & Kraftwerk.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4781)
Rory Simmons – trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics, synths, Chris Montague – electric & acoustic guitars, Jon Scott – drums
“Ex-Voto” is the third full album release by the band Monocled Man, the electro-jazz trio led by trumpeter, composer, programmer, producer and occasional keyboard player Rory Simmons.
Formed in 2011 by Simmons, in conjunction with Montague and Scott, Monocled Man has previously recorded two full length albums for Whirlwind. “Southern Drawl” (2014) represented an assured and powerful début. An all instrumental affair the album drew on jazz, rock and electronic music to create a series of distinctive and often rousing soundscapes.
“We Drift Meridian” (2016) was a conceptual work that added the singing of guest vocalists Emilia Martensson and Ed Begley to the instrumental and electronic sounds of the core trio. The album concept was inspired by the German author Judith Shcalansky and her tome “Pocket Book of Remote Islands”, a non fiction work written in the style of a novel and featuring tales of far flung islands and their current or former inhabitants. A number of these stories sparked Simmons’ imagination and the idea for an album began to emerge. Both Monocled Man albums are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann web pages.
In 2017 I was also fortunate enough to cover a performance of the “Meridian” material at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Simmons, Montague and drummer Pete Ibbotson, a late replacement for the unavailable Scott, were joined by both Martensson and Begley and the performance was complemented by the screening of a film collated by Simmons that showed archive footage collected from the various islands that had inspired the music.
2020 saw the release of the “Bernabe Jurado” EP, another conceptual work, inspired by the true story of the author William Burroughs’ murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs was subsequently defended by the lawyer Bernabe Jurado, who gives his name to the recording. Other sources of inspiration are the macabre short stories of Katherine Dunne and musician Steve Earle’s ‘Southern Gothic’ novel “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”. Made available in a variety of different formats it was unfortunate that this particular release slipped under most people’s radars due to the pandemic. My review of the EP, from which much of the above text has been sourced, can be found here;
“Ex Voto” is also a conceptual affair, again inspired by Simmons’ love of literature. It draws inspiration from the writings of the 19th century British author Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902) and particularly the satirical / dystopian novel “Erewhon”, first published in 1872. A quote from the novel is reproduced as part of the album packaging. Reading between the lines it struck me that the band Roller Trio may have derived their name from this same passage, but I digress. The album title “Ex Voto” ( a Latin phrase meaning ‘an offer given in order to fulfil a vow’) is sourced from another of Butler’s works.
Simmons, Montague and Scott recorded their parts in isolation, but they don’t view “Ex Voto” as a ‘lockdown’ album, as a brief liner note explains;
“We would have recorded this album in multiple locations and through remote sessions even if the global pandemic hadn’t occurred, and in that respect we don’t see this as a ‘lockdown album’, but one which has been accelerated by the time afforded us during 2020”.
The album features eleven new compositions from Simmons and features a characteristic blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. Simmons has long been interested in electronic music and also records pure electronica under the name Harlequin. He has also recorded two albums with the Anglo-Norwegian electro-jazz trio Eyes of a Blue Dog, featuring vocalist Elisabeth Nygard Pearson and drummer / sound artist Terje Evensen. He also led the sadly now defunct large ensemble Fringe Magnetic, with whom he also released two albums.
On this latest Monocled Man release Simmons and Scott act as co-producers and worked together closely, placing a strong emphasis on both groove and production values. Simmons says of the music;
“A lot of the touchstones for the record are cinematic, ambient, industrial soundscapes,” Simmons explains. “I still wanted it to sound English too, whilst tipping European noir. I wanted to make a record that was darkly cinematic and ambient but with big washes of industrial sound. I didn’t want to make a record based on how I would play it live, I wanted to make something I could sculpt, and create something really original.”
The album commences with the glitchy thunder of “End Signs”, with Simmons’ stentorian trumpet dramatically soaring above the electronically enhanced rhythms. However it’s not all sound and fury, with more reflective episodes punctuating the piece and with Simmons’ synths and Montague’s guitar providing beguiling splashes of colour and texture. The piece takes its name from Mexican author Yuri Herrara’s novel ‘End Signs Preceding The End Of The World’.
“Przhevalsky” offers a funkier groove allied to the familiar mix of bright trumpeting, electronically enhanced beats and swirling electronic soundscapes. It is named for the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky .
“Sense” commences with a combination of Scott’s dynamic acoustic drumming and industrial style beats / motifs. Simmons’ trumpet melody introduces a further humanising element, but the piece also contains elements of pure electronica. As the music gathers momentum, still featuring a mix of acoustic and electric beats and rhythms, Montague’s electric guitar cuts loose, adding to the sonic intensity.
Of the sometimes quirky “Gemstones” Simmons says; “melodically, it’s like a Dave Douglas track wrapped in noisy industrial samples”, which sums it up quite neatly. Douglas has long been an influence on Simmons’ work, as has the Vietnamese-American trumpeter, composer and bandleader Cuong Vu. Montague also features strongly here, soloing fluently and inventively above a combination of synth bass groove and Scott’s crisp acoustic drumming.
“Tin Skulls” is another piece inspired by the writings of Butler, a gently melodic piece featuring Simmons on flugel, Montague on acoustic guitar and Scott on gently pattering drums and percussion. Simmons solos expansively while the electronic elements bring an element of atmosphere and mystery to the proceedings.
The title of “Heksen Romance” is derived from Scandinavian witchcraft and early Swedish cinema. It’s one of the album’s most dynamic pieces, with Simmons’ bright, declamatory trumpeting, sometimes sounding like updated mariachi, combining with synth bass lines and Scott’s powerful drumming to create something quirky and infectious. Simmons’ role as ‘programmer in chief’ is also particularly in evidence here. His increasing skill and maturity in this field, with faithful lieutenant Scott by his side, is key to the success of the album as a whole. Simmons’ ability to seamlessly weave acoustic and electronic sounds together is a vital component in the success of Monocled Man’s music.
These skills also inform “Siler Woods Part 1”, one of the album’s most melodic and evocative tracks, with Simmons’ trumpet floating imperiously above Scott’s sturdy backbeat and Montague’s liquid, Mary Halvorson inspired guitar.
“Cellarius Shores” combines glitchy rhythms with soaring melodies and features a searing guitar solo from Montague. It takes its title from Cellarius, a pseudonym used by Butler When writing his essay “Darwin Amongst the Machines”, a work that was later incorporated into the novel “Erewhon”.
“Natural 93” is one of the trio’s most melodic and accessible pieces, fronted by Simmons’ trumpet and underscored by Montague’s eerie guitar twang and Scott’s solid grooves, all topped off with a sprinkling of Monocled Man’s patent sonic fairydust.
Butler’s 19th century writings on technology, and his very prescient fear that it would eventually take over, are expressed via the chilly atmospherics and plangent trumpet soloing of “Amongst The Machines”.
The album concludes with “Siler Woods Pt. 2”, a darker, more ambient piece than its predecessor, with the razor like slash of Montague’s Derek Bailey influenced acoustic guitar a particularly distinctive component. The viciously truncated ending comes as a genuine surprise.
“Ex Voto” represents both a huge step forward and a return to roots. After experimenting with vocals on “We Drift Meridian” Monocled Man have reverted to the core trio to produce their most successful work to date. Building on the success of their earlier recordings the new album represents their most convincing synthesis of acoustic and electronic sounds to date, building on the legacies of both Miles Davis and Kraftwerk and all points in between in thoroughly convincing fashion. There’s enough ‘jazz’ in there to keep the more adventurous members of that constituency on board, but this is also music that reaches out to a broader listenership.
Given that this is an album that was recorded remotely and with no in person studio sessions it represents a highly cohesive piece of work, unified by Simmons’ vision and the overall album concept. It’s a tribute to the three musicians involved that it sounds so good, and particularly to the two programmer / producers Simmons and Scott.
Monocled Man’s music may not be the easiest to describe, but it’s mix of acoustic and electronic sounds and its broad range of musical and cultural influences ensure that it’s very satisfying to listen to. And despite Simmons’ comments about the music not being designed for live performance it would be great if MM could actually adapt this material and take it out on the road.
“Ex Voto” will be released on December 3rd 2021 by Whirlwind Recordings.
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