I Don't Believe in Gods and Monsters. I Believe in Ben.
When it comes to trance, Ben Watkins wrote the book, soaked it in LSD-25, ate it piece by piece, and wrote it again in his own blood. What began as a collaboration to score non-commercial art installations, his legendary Juno Reactor project now ranks among the all-time greats of electronic music, alongside the likes of Underworld and Shpongle as essential innovators. The 1993 debut long-player Transmissions is widely accepted as one of, if not the first goa album in history. The form of the genre has been expanded upon and nearly perfected over the course of his catalogue, with Gods and Monsters counting as his seventh album in twice as many years.
Though all Juno Reactor records have nine tracks, the first few albums were also fairly rigid in thematic structure. But, gradually, the hints of a wide range of influences began to show more and more in each subsequent release. This progress has continued to the point that, now, this new album hardly has any trance on it. While that may be something of a disappointment to hardcore purists, speaking as a collector of albums, Gods and Monsters is by far the most diverse and satisfying work yet to grace Watkins’s catalogue. To achieve this diversity, the album enlisted aid from David Bowie pianist Mike Garson, Asian Dub Foundation bassist Dr. Das, vocalists Ghetto Priest, Yasmin Levy, and Taz Alexander, percussionists Greg Ellis and Mabi Thobejane, and guitarists Eduardo Niebla, Sugizo, and Steven Stevens (who previously helped make “Pistolero” from 2000’s Shango the future cowboy epic it was). Collectively, they push this record further than ever before.
The opening “Inca Steppa” builds on a rambling lead to absorb a slowed-down, reggae-ish, “Closer”-like beat and a Taz ramble about Mexico arising. Minute three adds a Dick Dale surf guitar, which returns in the closing minutes to fully embrace the drum and bass vibe that had teased up previously, especially in the vocal sample. It opens the record on as epic a note as you could imagine, and the rest doesn’t let it down. Following that, “Tokyo Dub” is, as you would expect, a big, warping dub track during which Ghetto Priest makes mention of mentally constructing Japan’s capital city. Juno Reactor has done a lot of work scoring animés, so the track makes perfect sense. In fact, the cover itself was drawn by Koji Morimoto—who helped animate Akira and made a segment in The Animatrix—and much of the album is said to be based on his characters.
Changing pace, “Mind of the Free” would not be out of place on an older Cinematic Orchestra album, as it presents the moody, jazzy side of downtempo. The polar opposite of that track arrives in “Immaculate Crucifixion”, which begins innocently enough with a reversing electric guitar phrase, eventually swelling up with synth strings and live drums. By the time the track takes off, it’s an all-out post-rock jam too electronic for Explosions in the Sky and too metal for Mogwai. It’s hard to believe ‘til you hear it work.
Just in time for a crucial US presidential election, one shaping up to be a choice between change and a hundred years of war, “City of the Sinful” wholeheartedly embraces Ben’s political responsibilities. It’s a shocking indictment of this age of distraction, begging you to “open up your mind” over a hard but mobile downtempo beat, Portishead-like guitars, and piercing strings. Again showcasing his variety on the brink of contradiction, the closing “Pretty Girl” is a sweetly low-key lurve song led by a bubbling beat, elegant piano, and a shaker. Shockingly, Watkins himself takes lead vocal and moans out his best Leonard Cohen impression with the loving help of a gospel choir. He ain’t exactly Cohen, but going out with that kind of effort, perfectly balancing the way the album begins, is totally respectable.
There really isn’t much about the whole thing that isn’t worthy of props. Press releases are known for horrendous hyperbole, but it wasn’t blowing smoke when it said the album is Ben’s “most wide ranging and surprising” yet. I’ve already explained the ingrained diversity at length, and it’s surprising in the way that the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin or Beck’s Sea Change caught a lot of people off guard. Make no mistake, Gods and Monsters is Juno Reactor’s most complete and impressive record, and, being Ben’s seventh full-length, we’ve only seen the beginning of his true potential. That’s a scary thought.
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