Comma5 by MonkeyTrial

Release date: November 20, 2016
Label: Self-Released

MonkeyTrial make spacey, ambient electronica with guitars interwoven into their sound. Clive Mollart (keys) and Shaun Bailey (guitars) also happen to be two fifths of neo-prog survivors Third Quadrant. Their parent band are superb at what they do, yet fit neatly into the genre that spawned them. The same cannot be said of MonkeyTrial, who bring together influences from several sounds and scenes to create something unique.

The duo’s latest is comprised of four long tracks, some of which have previously seen the light of day. Each conjures a different yet complimentary mood. Echoes of the Berlin school are never far away, but this is not an expansive opus befitting of Klaus Schulze– punchy beats and driving percussion are appropriately deployed at times to fantastic effect, although each composition rises and falls out of an electronic swamp, taking form over the course of several minutes and returning to similarly drone-based territory upon its conclusion.

‘Songs Of Fallen Mermaids’ utilises a spoken word piece by Melissa Brewer, namely ‘Into the Abyss’, pairing the text with snaking piano lines and ever-present sequencers. Once the poem has been recited in full, the pair repeatedly excerpt individual lines of text to create a charming, hypnotic effect. Eventually a lively bassline, then a kick and percussion, enter the fray, the vanguard for some stunning solo work from Bailey. His heavily effected playing brings to mind Jens Gad’s work with Enigma – at times it sounding like a stifled, wailing, operatic soprano is attempting to climb through the mix.

If Bailey’s playing on ‘Songs Of Fallen Mermaids’ is in short, staccato bursts, ‘Comma5’ sees the guitarist in more lyrical form. Picking up and expanding on the exotic grooves that made a brief appearance in the former composition, the track is powered by lilting tabla rhythms, over which Bailey plays with poise and precision. His soloing is largely based around pentatonic patterns, but the fluid runs and careful choice of notes ensure that this doesn’t sound like the thousand apprentice players using electronic music as a backdrop to showcase their technical prowess. Textural sound design leads into a new sequenced pattern which in turn gives way to the album’s heaviest passage: Bailey switches to bass guitar, allowing Mollart’s synths to shine through.

‘Proteus’ provides a perfect introduction to album, opening with the sound of cavernous space. 3 minutes into its run time the first striking, picked guitar lines make an appearance. The mood remains meditative until after the 7 minute mark. Here an uptempo breakbeat and offbeat guitar strums guide the listener through the next four minutes, before relative calm is restored for the remainder of the composition. All the piece is lacking is a fully-fledged guitar solo, but given its subdued mood, that may be for the best.

Least effective is ‘Zeeebr’, mainly thanks to a beat that outstays its welcome and sounds a little too close to lumpen, conventional rock music for its own good. There is still much to admire here: the sequencer and bass guitar duet that precede the introduction of the rhythm track is cute; and once the piece samples a woman describing an apparently extra-terrestrial sighting, Bailey’s guitar adds some urgency to proceedings, nearly drowning out the drum track. Another breakdown leads into dubbier territory, with Mollart layering offbeat filter sweep sequencers alongside the album’s most overtly showy synth solo. Perhaps it’s the relative sparseness of this segment that makes it so enjoyable. Before long, we’re back into the heavy riffing to round off the tune and the album.

There’s a sense of evolution that underpins these tracks and elevates the music above many ambient releases. It’s this, along with the unfussy, integrated guitar playing, which sets Comma5 out as a timeless release. The album is a far cry from ambient music’s more experimental offerings, instead offering rhythm and harmony as key components of a dynamic sound. MonkeyTrial have a relatively low profile at present but based on this fine release are well worthy of further investigation.

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