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February 27, 2009
At this point along the course of the genre's progression, all signs point towards an imminent day of judgment for post-rock. A decade on from the godzilla stomp of Mogwai Young Team and five years removed from hearing real faith in blind love on The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, a recent rash of safe, comfortable records from virtually all of the movement's active heavyweights (that means you, Sigur Rós, This Will Destroy You, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky) has brought the future of the genus into question. Even Punk, the most hallowed of rock's immaculate re-conceptions, flickered and suffocated within a couple dozen months when faced with the demands of cultural evolution. Imitation and reinvention are often only degrees apart.

Whether post-rock can manage to escape the trappings of formulaic song construction and develop a credible yet exciting internal momentum, while continuing to stay true to its central tenants of amplified lyricism, is the $64,000 question of the moment and where From Monument To Masses make their stand with the group's third proper album, On Little Known Frequencies. While the militant San Francisco trio depends upon melodic interplay between guitar, bass, drums, and electronics (the latter an increasing addition to the conventional albeit unwritten post-rockian rules of engagement), their penchant for instrumental euphonics is also where the group's association with genre cliché ends. Rather than letting climax-begging motifs casually expand and build for minutes at a time, FMTM's melodies work hard at every given turn; rather than a lazily unfurling, On Little Known Frequencies is a work of men fascinated with the blueprints of song construction, a work consistently demanding active listener engagement. The group makes no bones about Fugazi being one of its central influences, and anyone familiar with the Dischord stalwarts will find From Monument To Masses kindred spirits to not only the seminal DC group's diligent melodic idiosyncrasy, but also practitioners of the same sort of quasi-political, tirelessly pro-community activism.

On Little Known Frequencies' opener, "checksum," establishes FMTM's straight-forward rockist approach and--including as it does the first barrage of spoken word samples encouraging immediate, cooperative action towards general aims of political justice--revolutionary bent. "checksum" also features a guitar melody that calls to mind one of the original springs of post-rock noodling, Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The opener, like the seven cuts that follow it, is constructed in a refreshing fashion, in that the trio concentrates on verse refrain set ups that allow a two-fisted climax to arrive unforeshadowed and often completely out of left field. This approach indicates that the group--consisting of drummer Francis Choung, bassist Sergio Robledo-Maderazo, and guitarist Matthew Solberg--are content to suffer the weight of building their technique from the ground up, rather than putting their decorative flag on conventional structures culled from the shelves of post-rock's now substantial pre-fab catalogue.



Lest we all get the wrong impression, however, it should be noted that within the conventions of unconventionality there exists an unwritten rule of trial and error. When eschewing the tried and true, explorers take on the risks of the unknown, and On Little Known Frequencies' second track introduces the potential shortcomings of From Monument To Masses' sound. With the same industrious, mechanical frame as the cut that preceded it, "(Millions of) Individual Factories" not only threatens to pin on the group the tail of a one-trick pony, the once-again-prominent spoken word samples run the risk of taking on the patina of a tired motif that's too easy an answer for the problem of fleshing out a song. While none of us want to sit through the umpteenth iteration of the spirit behind "Like Herod," is a Rage Against The Machine versus Volta Do Mar mash-up really a viable alternative?

It's "Beyond God & Elvis" where Frequencies escapes the looming quagmire of its own machinations. The album's third track and already remixed lead single, "BG&E" emerges instantly as a forceful and multiplicitous stallion, with rumbling sonic depth, and is followed by the lilting and affecting "A Sixth Trumpet". The pairing of tracks three and four is as thrilling as the opening couplet is misleading, and it is in "Trumpet" that FMTM make their opening salvos in the battle for the listener's heart, expanding their theater of operations beyond his or her head, and the track does so with an unassuming, choked-up elation.

If On Little Known Frequencies is a rebel army in spirit and in sound, then "An Ounce of Prevention" is the messianic leader of the cause. Lasting over nine minutes, "Prevention" is everything that works right in Frequencies' revolution--including the album's greatest shiver-inducing moment--boiled down to one digestible, titanic bite. After an understated, almost docile lead-in meanders through distorted chords and tactful drum machine beats, halfway through "Prevention" the music stops altogether, leaving the ominous tone of a heart rate monitor beeping in a steady rhythm as a sampled voice (recycled from "Sm-Nl" on the group's eponymous debut, where it was far more audible) demands of his audience, disaffected and "sick at heart," to put their own bodies "upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all of the apparatus" and gum up the works of man's social constructs, demanding to be set free. As the sound of a flatlining pulse rings out over the threat that, without freedom, the military-industrial complex's "machines will be prevented from working at all," Choung, Robledo-Maderazo, and Solberg tear triumphantly back through the surface for the remainder of the suite. That moment expresses the soul of the trio's cause: the music of From Monument To Masses is not about eros or existentialism, but the love of action and the degree to which the inherent romanticism of revolution generates a thrill to be alive.

The final trio of tracks on the album circle back through On Little Known Frequencies' established themes. There are loops of Solberg's melodic and meandering guitar notes ribboned through bouts of distortion. There is Robledo-Maderazo's bass walking the line between rhythmic timekeeper and vibrant counterpart to Solberg's guitar. There are Choung's drum tracks, not content to be merely an anchor and clearly an outgrowth of all the cross-pollination between hip-hop, prog, and traditional rock afforded by the digital revolution. There is programming and digital flourishes provided by all three. There are dynamic shifts in tone and tension. There is loud and soft. There are samples of political speeches. "Hammer & Nails," in not only its title but also its layout, has a few shades of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and for anyone wanting a concise taster there is "The First of Five" which, at just a hair over three minutes, the shortest cut by far, is like a pocket version of FMTM's mantra of hard work generating power.

While it is not necessarily life affirming--in the year of Obama one would think that the consumer-ready Season of Hope might have infected, at least a little bit, even the most hardened militant--On Little Known Frequencies does help to postpone post-rock's eventual day of reckoning by generating it's own creative manifesto.

VIDEO: "Comrades & Friends" (live)

[photos by Shannon Corr]

SEE ALSO: www.monument-masses.com
SEE ALSO: www.dimmak.com

--
Dave Toropov
Introduced to music in the womb with a pair of headphones on his mother's stomach, Dave Toropov has yet to recover the experience. A writer based in Boston and New York, he has also written for Prefix Magazine and What Was It Anyway, and is the maintainer of the "Middleclass Haunt" blog.

See other articles by Dave Toropov.

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