They say that every actor wants to be a rock star—and sometimes visa versa. By contrast, it’s often felt that every bubblegum pop musician must want to be taken seriously as an actual artist. Sure, crafting the perfect three-minute earworm that functions as something both frivolous and fun takes an undue amount of talent. But we tend to dismiss those artists, instead looking toward the “difficult” or “obscure” for our unsolicited praise. Perhaps this would explain Andy Partridge’s ongoing experiments in sound and sensibility.
As a member of that seminal Swindon manufacturer of aural confections, XTC, Partridge’s catchy melodies and Beatles-esque approach to songcraft has made him one of the most criminally overlooked creative forces in modern music. Yet somewhere in his instrumental make-up, beyond all the complex chord changes, precise hooks, and thought provoking lyricism, lies a man uneasy with his place inside the sonic stratagem.
Monstrance is an example of his continuing fight with his wavering muse. As his regular gig finds itself on yet another extended break (this one may actually be permanent, sadly) and the cassette closet almost empty after being raided for all the Fuzzy Warble demos it could manage, Partridge is back looking for a non-pop purpose. In a time when most indie rockers would die to have half of his amazing ability, he’s off playing jam band with some old pals.
The outcome is this collaboration with ex-bandmate Barry Andrews (who left XTC keyboardist-less back in 1979) and a mutual friend, drummer Martyn Barker (part of Andrews’ latest group, the prog/panic trio Shrieback). On a whim, Partridge pulled the pair into a studio, set up some tape, and let the improvisations fly. The results -– slightly edited and lacking the least bit of polishing overdubs –- now become the latest attempt by the guitarist to mix art with ability.
For those only familiar with Partridge’s MTV efforts like “Dear God”, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”, or his theme from the failed TV series Wonderfalls, Monstrance will be a bitter double dose of sonic espresso. It’s as far from hummable sonic bliss as XTC is from returning to the concert stage (Partridge’s performance panic attacks have kept him from touring since the early ‘80s.).
Monstrance‘s two CDs of ‘songs’ are harsh, scattered and tough to fully fathom. Moments come across like New Age gone antisocial, while some sequences sear the synapses right off of your nerves. Unlike his work with Harold Budd (for the remarkable ambient album Through the Hill) or his own remix/dub collection of ‘70s era XTC tracks (the still strange Take Away/The Lure of Salvage), this certainly sounds like a bunch of drinking buddies, sitting around, fiddling with their instruments. Definitive beats are hard to find, as is anything remotely melodic. Even more elusive are completed structures or a sense of definable direction.
Because they avoid any clearly recognizable aural foundation -– no blues stomp, no set linear progression -– this is tone poetry as prickly free verse. You can practically hear the specters of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp flying in between the snatches of sound. Partridge’s playing throughout, especially on numbers like Disc Two’s “Pagoda Tailfin” remind one of the echo tape looping that became the former King Crimson axe man’s signature style. Equally, Andrews “treats” his keyboard in the same manner as the acclaimed electronic God. Occasionally, it will sound like an organ. But at other instances, as on “Priapple” (nothing more than 16 minutes of meandering) or Disc One’s “I Lovely Cosmonaut” (a slow, spacey bop) we hear everything from robotic squawks to icy interstellar striations.
The closest thing to an actual instrumental are pieces like “Mig”, which zooms along like funk being forced out of a android, or current YouTube favorite “Winterwerk”, which uses a barely recognizable guitar statement to build the aural equivalent of a cold climate carnival collapsing on itself. In many ways, Disc One plays like sonic sketches in an artisan’s troubled portfolio, while Disc Two compares to atonal symphonies stolen from a madman’s marked up score sheets.
While there are moments of outstanding loveliness present –- “The Floating World” and “Little Field” are somber, atmospheric pieces that whisk one away on gorgeous glints of sound that argue for the concept’s potential and playability –- there are also times when it feels as if Andrews, Partridge and Barker aren’t really trying that hard. A piece like the cleverly named “Torturetainment” delivers more on its first two syllables than anything remotely resembling the last, while “Oddoo” is nothing more than the introduction to a schizophrenic song being practiced over and over and over again.
If you’re a long time Partridge patron looking for light at the end of this significantly self indulgent tunnel, a tune like the very XTC-ish “Chaingang” argues for what a group like this could accomplish with a little more practice and a lot more patience. Similarly, the vampy “Ur Tannoy” begins as outtakes from a more melodic version of Metal Machine Music until finally finding its voice as a gorgeous guitar clarion call. It’s these moments that make a listener go back and reconsider their initial negative reaction to all the discord that came before.
But then a bombastic baroque assault like “Black Swan Black” invades your speakers, making you realize where it’s all going—and gone—wrong. The attempted ‘tune’, shapeless and ever shifting, easily imitates the far away cacophony of an out of work orchestra tuning up. It makes Monstrance‘s two disc dilemma a lot like hunting for nimble needles in a haystack overrun by dissonance.
Which harkens back to the original proposition. Partridge is perhaps second only to those lovable Liverpool mop tops in creating some of the most memorable British music of the last forty years. His compositions both revere and reinvent the kind of merry Mersey beat that led an entire world to look the way of the UK when they thought about rock and roll. Now, as middle age meanders across his considered cult career, it’s obvious he’s looking for another, more solemn outlet for his talent. While fans might forgive him this for one off indulgence, the uninitiated will only hear the squeaks and squawks of a troubadour and his amiable associates treading some mighty weird waters.