One of the most consistently difficult and frustrating things about covering music that falls into the buckets of math rock, fusion, prog, and more is that a central and foundational tenet of that music – complexity – also ends up being the very thing that is the music’s undoing. Fans can (and do) constantly obsess over how many unusual time signatures a song packs in as a proportional measure of how great that music is, but so often in the pursuit of the most head-spinning riffs, polyrhythmic grooves, and impenetrable song forms, what most frequently is lost is the music itself and whether it’s actually worth listening to. There’s nothing wrong with complexity and complicated music, but if there isn’t an adequate payoff for the time and patience required to “understand” it then what exactly are we doing here?
Chicago’s Monobody has directly tackled that question by essentially having their cake and eating it, too. Over one LP and a split EP with Pyramid Scheme, the post-math-fusion-whatever five-piece had already shown that they were more than capable of creating exciting and challenging music that didn’t require a degree in music theory to enjoy. The mixture of breezy technical prowess spread out equally throughout the group, audacious compositions unafraid to stop on a dime and pivot in unexpected but completely welcome directions, and general laid-back coolness befitting much of the legendary Chicago jazz, post-rock, and math-rock they clearly drew upon coalesced into a beautiful machine. Like a complex clock showing off the many dozens of tiny gears and parts working together synchronously, the inner mechanics of Monobody’s music are impressive and precise, but one only need to look at the full product to understand and appreciate what it’s all working towards. So perhaps the most impressive thing about the band’s sophomore album, Raytracing, is not just that they created an even more impressive and complex machine, but that they designed an even more beautiful and aesthetically-pleasing clock in the process.
From the first spaced-out synth tones of opener “Ilha Verde” it’s clear that Monobody have only expanded their already broad and rich sonic palette since their self-titled debut. Raytracing is somehow even bolder and far more adventurous in its compositions while continuing to strike the perfect balance of gravity-defying noodling, earworm motifs and melodies, and thick atmosphere that ties it all together and offers listeners necessary checkpoints to process what they just heard. “Ilha Verde” is a perfect encapsulation of this as it acts as a suite unto itself, clocking in at a band record length of close to 11 minutes. Within a few minutes the track shifts seamlessly from the aforementioned chilled-out synths to more typically bright jazzy riffs to crunchy dissonance bordering on metal and back again, starting a new cycle that brings back similar motifs with plenty of adjustments and variations, all before cycling through the process once more and resolving in an ecstatic flurry of synths and jaw-dropping fills from drummer Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. That description might make it sound overly repetitive or overwhelming to take in, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The track, like the rest of Raytracing, while not exactly easy listening, goes down remarkably smooth without losing its own narrative thread.
This is especially true of the couple of relatively short barn-burners that follow the lead track in “Raytracing” and lead single “Former Islands.” The former comes charging out of the gate with a rollicking riff motif that seems to fold in on itself melodically in the most fascinating ways before resolving into a positively bouncy groove and dreamy interlude. It’s about as compact as the band get, and even then it manages to pack an abundance of wonderful ideas into it. “Former Islands” takes a far more laid-back and spacey approach, building up a gorgeous world of synths that gradually combine with guitar and basses into a typically kaleidoscopic soundscape. “Echophrasia” is the album’s other 10-minute epic, this one providing a far more jagged and beguiling composition bringing to mind the kind of cosmic acrobatics that defined so much of classic prog fusion groups like Return To Forever. Brief interlude “The Shortest Way” provides another welcome musical pit-stop and sigh before the album launches into its Steve Reich meets Tortoise whirlwind conclusion in “Opalescent Edges,” which somehow manages to up the ante on the band’s own capacity for huge and sweeping compositions. By the time Raytracing meets its satisfying end, it truly feels like Monobody have taken us on a musical odyssey, an epic journey constantly hitting us with twists and turns, but a logical and methodical journey nonetheless.
Highlighting any individual performances in Monobody and on Raytracing in particular is a fool’s errand as the entirety of the group – Al Costas and Steve Marek on bass, Collin Clauson on keys, Conor Mackey on guitar, and the aforementioned Ogbonnaya on drums – is simply so ridiculously keyed in and impeccable throughout that the entire damn performance is a highlight. What also makes Raytracing a clear step up from their previous work though is the crisper and more expansive production that really allows every intricacy and detail of these songs to come through and shine. It cannot be stressed enough how much of an accomplishment Raytracing is on every level. The amount of care poured into every detail and moment combined with a bigger picture and scope that never gets lost in its own complexity is something that precious few bands can hope to achieve. Raytracing is an unmitigated triumph, one that should be celebrated widely throughout the musical worlds Monobody touches and far beyond.
Raytracing will be released November 1 through Sooper Records. You can purchase it through Monobody’s Bandcamp here. In case you can’t tell already I feel very strongly that you do so.