If there were ever to be a ‘Big Four’ of modern Djent, then Monuments would be one of them. Probably alongside Tesseract, Periphery and Vildhjarta, if you ask me. However, I think we can let those who care about that sort of thing argue about who the precise members of that club would be in a dark basement corner somewhere. For our purposes here and now, it is sufficient to say that for some, the release of a third Monuments album is A Big Deal, and especially so in the segment of the metal underground that clusters around Tech Fest and Euroblast.
It’s been a long four years since Monuments released their second album, The Amanuensis, and followed it up with a remarkably intensive period of touring. So intense, in fact, that it left the band in a markedly different shape to when it started. Long-term drummer Mike Malyan relinquished his drum stool to address serious health issues, and frontman Chris Baretto came close to being forced to hang up his microphone permanently due to problems with his vocal cords. Chris ultimately recovered, and the band saw out the touring run with journeyman Anup Sastry behind the kit, save for a few final shows. It ultimately transpired that Anup did not remain a permanent member of the band, handing over to Daniel Lang, but Anup returned to the studio to track the drums for Phronesis.
It may be four years since the last Monuments album, but in the interim, we have had some insight into guitarist and principal songwriter John Browne’s headspace in the form of a pair of solo albums, Qatsi and Yetzer Hara. Now, in retrospect, we can see that – at least as far as the riffs are concerned – these albums have neatly bridged the gap between The Amanuensis and Phronesis. Indeed, Phronesis contains some of the very best riffs ever to be wrought from Browne’s fretboard.
Phronesis starts with a bang. “AWOL” is a classic Monuments stomper, full of the jagged buzzsaw riffs and bouncy rhythms on which the band have built their reputation, and it’s a track that’s sure to become a near-permanent addition to the live setlist as a result. However, it is also the albums strongest track, which represents something of a problem. As Phronesis progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that, unlike the jump from Gnosis to The Amanuensis, there has been little development in the Monuments sound. So that first listen to Phronesis falls a little flat. Whilst it recovers somewhat through repeat listens, as some of the subtleties of the songs reveal themselves, it never quite grips or excites in the same way as The Amanuensis did on release. Closer inspection suggests three reasons for this.
The Amanuensis felt like the product of a band riding the crest of a wave. After repeated attempts, and the recruitment of Chris Baretto, Monuments had finally found themselves with a personnel that truly matched their potential and the creative inspiration that generated was palpable. The album was tied together by a strong concept, but the songs held their ground individually as well. Phronesis doesn’t have this overt level of cohesion, nor does it meaningfully break new ground.
The second issue, which runs throughout Phronesis, stems from the choice to bring Anup back for the studio sessions. Of course, Anup is the consummate professional, and gives the tracks a solid backbone, but his playing lacks the imagination and outright savagery to really set the tracks alight. There are, no doubt, perfectly legitimate reasons behind the decision to bring Anup back into the fold, albeit temporarily, but ultimately he is just a bit too polite, and some more belligerence could have breathed more life into some of the tracks.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, comes the inescapable feeling that the lyrics and vocal melodies brought by Chris Baretto are a rush job. There is little subtlety or nuance to the lyrics themselves, but that in itself is less of an issue for a collection of short, bouncy, pit-friendly songs. Whilst there has always been a Michael Jackson influence evident in Chris’ melodic lines, there are several moments on Phronesis, not least lead single “Mirror Image”, where those melodies move beyond influence into the overt borrowing of sections wholesale from the King of Pop, as well as treading ground covered more effectively on The Amenuensis. Chris is, without question, the best frontman in the progressive metal underground, but on Phronesis he does not seem to be firing on all cylinders, and this is a tremendous pity.
All is not lost, though. Monuments have always been at their most vital on stage, and alongside “AWOL”, “Stygian Blue” and “Leviathan” sound like they will become worthy additions to the live set, where the issues discussed so far take more of a back seat. Nobody cares about subtlety when they’re upside down in a moshpit, after all. And it is through this lens that Phronesis can be viewed most favourably. There is a seam of quality running through the songs, especially in the guitar and bass parts that allow it to become a great soundtrack to other activities, but unfortunately has shortcomings that bubble to the surface unavoidably when the listener gives it their undivided attention.
Maybe this is a case of inflated expectations, and those coming to Monuments fresh with this record will feel differently, but Phronesis feels more like a predecessor to The Amanuensis than its successor, and after a four-year wait, it’s hard not to be disappointed by that. At least the release of Phronesis means that the band will be hitting the road again, and we will undoubtedly have plenty of opportunities to watch Monuments in their element as a result.