I was blown away by Monarch when I caught them live at Damnation Fest in Leeds a couple of years ago – a thoroughly unsettling experience as I recall. I’ve been waiting to catch up on some new material from the French underground outfit ever since and have finally been able to explore them further with the release of the extraordinary Never Forever.
This is a stunning five-track album as depressingly heavy as anything you’ll come across this year, it’s plodding doom exterior also encasing some genuinely disturbing and frightening cries and squalls from singer Emilie Bresson.
Opening composition ‘Of Knight, With Knives’ begins with an extended drone sequence before ambling along like a wounded buffalo, revealing very little of itself for the first few minutes. This though is Monarch’s way, lengthy ambient stretches of distracted distortion, which are occasionally blessed with a more human demographic, often via a cursory vocal kick, yelp or growl.
After about six minutes of navigating febrile disjointed terrain, a pattern of harmonies starts to weave through the deep pounding backdrop, although you have to tune in carefully to decipher them through the maelstrom. These though are quickly joined by emotive harmonies, bestial barks and distressed cries from Emilie that send shivers down your spine. ‘Of Knight, With Knives’ stretches out to 15 minutes, during which no eye is taken off any ball, and the journey is so rich and robust that you don’t want to hop off in case you miss something. The final few movements have the gravitas and depth to derail a train.
Monarch do things at their own pace, which is of course, invariably, slow to the point of near stationary. ‘Song to the Void’ is by some distance the shortest piece of this five-track album and again it rolls well within itself, a constant softly spoken harmony nestling over a persistent and perfunctory rhythm. The backdrop drone envelopes your senses and while the tempo and severity of the cut rarely wavers, an impending sense of doom is never hard to shake off.
There are more than a few echoes of Pallbearer wrapped up in the low slung stroll of despair that is ‘Cadaverine’. The mood is all consuming, heavy of heart, but with just enough atmosphere and melancholic movement to keep feelings of utter moroseness at arm’s length. Emilie’s vocals are soft additions to the overall bleak sonic soundscape, one perforated with drones and dissonant wisps that seduct and scare roughly in equal measure.
‘Diamant Noir’, which even with my limited French can be made out as Black Diamond, sees Monarch at their softest, more ethereal than edgy and more demure than demonic. It gives Emilie the chance to really let her vocal range open up, with the heavy bass and suffocating drones ushered back into the corner. Which isn’t of course to suggest that this is an easy listen; it still retains Monarch’s trademark monolithic groove patterns which crawl by at their own unhurried pace.
The final 20 minutes of the album consist purely of ‘Lilith’ an outrageously heavy track that completely consumes like a venomous Black Widow spider. So slow through its early paces as to almost be in reverse, ‘Lilith’ bludgeons you with its high altar sense of command, sabotaging any resistance to its unremitting journey towards the abyss. The drones have taken over and Emilie is for large parts AWOL, as Monarch orchestrate seismic soundscape shifts that resemble tectonic plates being manoeuvred across a barren terrain. When the French singer is heard it is just through shallow whispers at first, although these are in turn crushed by more visceral screeches as the Gallic doomsters flicker between light and darkness.
Never Forever is without doubt one of the most compelling, challenging, claustrophobic and damn blindingly brilliant doom albums you’ll hear this year.