Review Summary: Not bad for a bunch of musical bullies.
Every now and again. an act will come along which not only revolutionizes the musical genre it inserts itself in, but irrevocably alters the entire music world with its novel concepts and ideas. Usually borne from a certain artist or band's desire to test the boundaries of the genre they insert themselves in, this new sound usually ends up spawning a slew of tribute-payers/impersonators, often giving way to an entirely new sub-category.
Most of the genres music fans know and love today were born in such fashion, and the trend has happened numerous times. In the 1950's. Elvis sped up blues numbers and coupled them with outrageous sensuality, thus creating rock'n'roll: a decade later, the Beatles perfected and expanded on the twee-pop genre; yet another decade later, Black Sabbath's eponymous debut laid the groundwork for the next four decades of heavy music; and in the late 70s, the Ramones and the New York Dolls sped up the previous decade's prevalent sound, while across the ocean the Sex Pistols injected noise and anarchy, thus contributing to the birth of punk.
But while a common feature of all these groups and artists is the fact that they are recognised as forefathers of their respective genres, there is another, no less important band which somehow managed to fly under the radar for over three decades, before being discovered by ever-keen music historians and elevated to its rightful place in the music timeline. Said band were Germany-based American five-piece The Monks.
Known for their heavily visual shows (the group dressed in full monk attire, complete with nooses), the Monks are, historically, no less important than the Ramones or Black Sabbath. For if those groups were helping create and establish a genre, the Monks were doing it for an entire country
's musical scene. Listening to their first and only album, Black Monk Time
, it is easy to ascertain that Gary Burger and his peers had a hand in creating nearly every genre to ever spawn out of Germany, from darkwave to goth-rock to industrial black metal and beyond. Everything a music listener associates with German music - the dark, chilly ambiances, the sparse, militaristic beats, the slight mean streak pervading it all - can be found on this single group of songs, which is especially impressive considering this album was released in 1966
, well before anyone had even heard of goth or hard rock, let alone black metal.
As a result, the Monks' solitary release is as much a product of its time as it is an anomaly. While harmonised vocals and the odd chirpier moment do surface, it is easy to see why this album attained no commercial success, and was doomed to appeal to no more than a cult audience: in a nutshell, the Monks are not very nice
. The atmosphere throughout this album is chillingly cold, with Gary Burger constantly sneering his contempt for his fellow humans while his backup band seems keen on causing the listener as much discomfort as possible - witness, if you will, an album which, in the age of the syrupy love song, presents an anti
-love song. Burger's cry of "you know why I hate you, baby"/It's because you make me, make me, make me hate you, baby"
(on the symptomatically titled I Hate You
) and the harsh, sneering, contemptuous yelps of "shut up, don't cry!"
(on the also symptomatically-titled Shut Up!
) are indicative of the fact that no, the Monks did not want to please your mother. They were perfectly content being bullies, and that is what they come across as throughout the album.
However, despite the obvious mean streak pervading the record, the Monks' music somehow works
. Even when they are brattily poking fun at the period's music tropes, such as doo-wop vocals and trite puppy-love themes, they somehow manage to ingratiate themselves enough with the listener that he or she will forgive their bullyish antics. And when they are attempting nothing more than to send one's parents into a scandalised outrage, the listener still somehow loves them for it. Of course, the quality and originality of the songwriting helps - there is barely a weaker track on Black Monk Time
, even factoring in the numerous reissues' bonus tracks, and while most of them follow a similar pattern, they simultaneously have enough individual personality to hold one's interest for the album's short duration.
The prevailing sound on Black Monk Time
, as heard from a present-day perspective, immediately links the Monks to several other more or less influential groups. Larry Clark's organ instantly screams "THE DOORS!", while Burger's fuzzed-up guitar and white-negro vocals also establish a link to MC5. And then, of course, there is modern-retro group The Apes, which basically sounds like an updated version of what Burger, Clark, Roger Johnston, Eddie Shaw and Dave Day accomplish on this album.
A typical song on Black Monk Time
is driven along by Clark's organ and Shaw's interventive bass, backed by Johnston's thundering percussion work and topped by Burger's semi-deranged and certainly acid-fueled ravings. Here and there, as noted, the group also insert a not-so-subtle jab at the tropes used by popular bands of the period, such as twee doo-wop vocals and syrupy, corny love songs (We Do, Wie Du
) all the while infusing the songs with enough character to stand out from one another. As a result, most of the tracks on the album are firmly above-average, with the only instances of filler appearing towards the very end.
Despite the overall quality, however, standouts are still very easy to pick. Oh How To Do, Now
(the b-side to the album's first and only single, follow-up Complication
) is a more traditional, but flawlessly executed pop song, while Drunken Maria
is an hilarious example of nonsensical music-making at its best. The coveted third standout spot, on the other hand, is furiously fought over by both Higgle-dy Piggle-dy
and We Do, Wie Du
, with the latter just edging out its opponent by a millimetre. Elsewhere, Shut Up!, Boys Are Boys And Girls Are Choice
provide undeniably strong back-up, making up an album which literally does not falter for its entire first two thirds.
The problem, then, starts after Drunken Maria
. To put it bluntly, the remaining songs of the album fail to capture the level of excitement of their predecessors, and never assert themselves as anything more than filler. And while on the original release this problem was limited to three songs - one of which, That's My Girl
, admittedly decent - it is nonetheless sad to see an album stop this short of absolute perfection. It is also hard to fathom why, after coming down so hard on their radio-friendly peers, the Monks would want to include a bona-fide, unironic, sappy love song such as Love Came Tumbling Down
The several reissues' bonus tracks continue the trend of mixing the interesting with the naff. The two common tracks between all of them - the chirpy I Can't Get Over You
and the irrepressibly tongue-in-cheek Cuckoo
- are both very strong, and capable of siding with anything on the actual album. The extra tracks added by the 1994 re-issue, however, contribute to the increase in filler by adding He Went Down To The Sea
, a turgid song with a completely different-sounding lead singer and an overall much blander sound - close to what the group mocked in some of the other tracks, in fact. The other bonus track, similar-sounding but vastly superior Love Can Tame The Wild
, is a pleasant listen, but once again leaves the listener scratching their head as to its existence, seeing as it is a formulaic pop love song that could have been written by countless pop groups of the period.
None of this, however, detracts from the fact that - aside from a couple of instances - Black Monk Time
is a nearly perfect album, and a mandatory listen for fans of punk, goth rock, proto-hard rock, or any of the other genres the group touch upon here. And considering its historical importance, it is only a mystery why this gem lived in obscurity for close to three decades. As anyone who has listened to Black Monk Time
will attest, it could not have come soon enough.
Oh, How To Do Now
We Do, Wie Du