Politically charged music always raises some questions, not only about the politics of the music but also the purpose. Do the politics overtake the quality of the music? Would the music be better simply on its own, allowing the listener to derive their own meaning, or should the purpose of music always be stated? Where does the line between propaganda and art lie? For nearly a decade, a particular branch of post-rock has dealt with this issue. Spearheaded and popularized – if you can call any post-rock aside from Explosions in the Sky popular – by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the following projects of its members, politically charged post-rock has always used the grand scope of its music to convey the emotional intensity of particular issues. And when it is excellent like the aforementioned Godspeed, it is some of the most moving, intense music around.
From Monument to Masses have released their first album of new material since 2003 with On Little Known Frequencies. The political landscape has certainly changed since that album, The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Steps. America alone saw small things such as, say, Hurricane Katrina, the election of Barack Obama, and a mass financial meltdown. But as the album title might imply, From Monument to Masses are concerned with less-popular pressing issues.
Which brings us back to the topic at hand: the line between politics and musical purpose. On this album, the music never gets so caught up in its politics that it becomes pretentious and pedantic. In fact, it seems to ignore the politics more than the press releases and album summaries might want a listener to think. To get their messages across, the band uses vocal samples, usually spoken-word, aside from the end of “checksum” (sic). Sometimes the accompanying music swallows up the words, making it all the harder to derive the meaning of the song. The aforementioned sung vocal sample at the end of “checksum” brings a necessary melodicism to the music, but the lines are quite vague: “If this is living, what is death? / If this is progress, what comes next? / If life can happen for the rest…” Some of the song titles make little sense given their musical counterpart, such as “A Sixth Trumpet”, which likely refers to the Book of Revelation in the Bible, where John prophesies the destruction of one third of mankind by hordes of demonic horsemen. The song itself is, for the first half, calm and pretty, and in the second half, epic and heroic. It’s the prototypical post-rock song that seems to have little to do with the apocalypse, unless the band is getting really cynical.
Given the indistinguishable vocal samples and surrounding ambiguity, the music is mostly left to stand for itself. Luckily, it succeeds on a lot of occasions. Opening track “checksum” is a quick-paced, technically proficient composition that incorporates math-rock rhythms not normally seen in this brand of post-rock. “Beyond God and Elvis”, which the band released as a single, a tactic rarely seen in the genre, is an anthemic rocker, full of catchy guitar riffs, changing drum grooves, and synth arpeggios that embellish the general simplicity of the music. Recalling a more exuberant Mogwai or This Will Destroy You, it contains only one sample, with the punchline of “This machine don’t give a shit”. While other songs are less original and simply emulate the typical post-rock song, everything is composed well, and the band hardly missteps in their performance. “An Ounce of Prevention” has it all – slow-building crescendos, more funky uptempo grooves, glitchy electronic breakdowns, and perhaps the most well-placed sample on the album.
Still, some songs fall on their face due to lack of originality or a failure in executing its purpose, such as “Let Them Know It’s Christmas Time”, which is full of those indistinguishable samples and From Monument to Masses’ signature mix of uptempo math rock and slow-building post-rock. At such a late point in the album, and after most of the same material was perfected in earlier tracks, the song is simply stale. The same goes for “Hammer and Nails”, making a one-two punch of lengthy lackluster songs to close out what could have been a great musical album.
On Little Known Frequencies certainly raises the question of the role of politics in music, giving a different perspective on the issue. Instead of loading the album with political undertones throughout, the album lacks in distinguishable meaning to advertise it truly as an album with a political agenda. While the music usually stands comfortably on its own, it is hard to distinguish whether the band achieved its means. The listener gets little meaning from the music, as the album becomes more about providing entertainment than provoking thought.