Chicago based art-rock duo The Loneliest Monk performed a masquerade of future’s past at the city’s recently revitalized Mayne Stage. The Loneliest Monk paired the rich resonance of cello with full body drumming; added to the repertoire were collages of sound samples, pianos and fragile vocals. The result was a multidimensional melodrama of haunts, romantic pursuits and distant memories.
I attended the performance with little hindsight on the band; I admit part of me was eager to check out the new venue. The freshly restored Mayne Stage was the perfect setting to showcase the eclectic duo. Formally the Morse Theater, the building’s history dates back to 1912, originally doubling as a vaudeville theater and movie house. The space offered high ceilings, bold acoustics, scaled seating and an intimate stage.
Cellist Michelle Morales (cello, piano, vocals) sported an ornate, exaggerated tiered dress and costume jewelry; her counterpart Miles Benjamin (drums, samples, vocals, tiny piano) sought refuge behind his drum set masked and anonymous. The performance started as a distant whisper from the great unknown, trumped by an orchestral swell, and ushered into innovated baroque pop melodies with chilling undertones.
The results were an original brand of progressive rock, artistic in nature and dramatic in delivery; the sonic drama unfolded onstage beneath pink and green glows of stage lights. Together Morales and Benjamin created a moody voice that evoked thoughts of Ouija boards, supernatural forces and film noir. Their content was film for one’s ears as the music traveled through movements like scenes in a movie: I imagined dark shadows, rich contrasts of black and white, confined empty spaces amidst an outdoor world of elegance, matched with Alfred Hitchcock-esque suspense. The Loneliest Monk’s music sparked vivid emotions of anxiety and paranoia interchanged with desire, lust and wonder.
I admit that at first I was put off by the band’s artistry. They made me feel unsettled and trapped; my mind was confronted with thoughts of restless ghosts, scenes from The Shining and imagery of being trapped in a doll house (too much Are You Afraid of the Dark? as I a child I suppose). I felt that the musicianship was extraordinary but the content too scattered and grim. Specifically I did not take to Morales’ frail, childlike, airy vocals, especially when she would repeatedly chant verses. On the other hand Morales’ command over her electric cello was exquisite; each vibrato echoed through the theater emulating intrigue and poetry. During the heat of an instrumental jam, Morales pushed her instrument past classical to the realm of progressive rock. Her deep chamber resonance transformed towards the likes of lo-fi guitar, adding a unique rock element to the band’s body.
While Morales revitalized the cello Benjamin poured his energy into toms and bass drums, which resulted in round and compelling rhythms that overpowered Morales’ efforts. The complex and potent rhythms ultimately separated from the cello on an expedition through tempo changes and textures. The two traded off rampant solos and journeyed through classical themes, improvisation and pentatonic scales, favoring minor keys and waltzes.
As I admitted before I did not walk out of the performance excited to hear more. I felt that the duo was talented and unique; however I was not drawn to their sound and presentation. Experiencing The Loneliest Monk was watching an avant-garde performance bearing a full spirit and lucid soul. They are the type of band that one sits, watches and listens similar to musical theater.
Days after the performance I gave the band another try, sat in the middle of my room, closed my eyes and intently listened to their music. Sure enough I began to see and hear the band as sonic artists painting songs with layers of texture, shadow and detail. Listening to The Loneliest Monk is like listening to a film or piece of fine art with decorated stage appeal. Unfortunately I realized too late that behind their masks Morales and Benjamin produce authentic, complex music unique to their respective styles and contemporary music.