Music

Monolake: Ghosts

More listenable and slightly less scary than 2009's Silence, Robert Henke again utilizes field recordings to lend an organic tilt to this decidedly chilly record.


Monolake

Ghosts

Label: Imbalance Computer Music
US Release Date: 2012-03-13
UK Release Date: 2012-02-27
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Artist website
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Some people are doers, and some people are perceivers. Robert Henke, the man behind the roughly 15-year-old Monolake project and the Ableton Live software he utilizes, is both. Not just that: For Henke, perceiving and doing are parts of the same creative process, informing him at every turn. Ghosts came to him as he was daydreaming and concocting a story rich with drama and detail. (If you don’t own a copy of Ghosts on CD or vinyl, Henke has generously transposed the story from the liner notes onto his website, and he urges you to read it as you listen.) The album’s core sounds arose from the various items Henke found around his house and perceived to be sonically interesting—things like pebbles rolling around in a bowl and glasses clinking together. Henke calls them “whimsical little sonic creatures,” and in a certain sense, they are ghosts: The sounds as we hear them are not the items themselves in action, but rather the invocation of them, exhumed through the power of recorded media.

Henke played around with found sounds and field recordings on his last album, Silence, to thrilling effect. With Monolake, everything is vivid, an experience to be lived instead of simply heard. This is why Henke prefers that people listen to Ghosts on shiny vinyl, read his thoughts in the liners, and play it from front to back. Yet even a short listen on a mediocre system reveals that Henke possesses the rare ability to bring out the soul in his machines. As with most of his records, Ghosts is full of paradoxes: It’s electronic but acoustic, monochromatic but multifaceted, mechanical but lifelike. Like a master chef, Henke knows himself as well as he knows his source material, and he projects the complexity of his psyche onto the music he makes.

That the story accompanying Ghosts begins with the image of flies is apt, not just because the buzzing intruders approximate several of the record’s sounds, but also because they leave us with an image of hollow, vacated terrain, in which only a bug could survive. Among electronic musicians, Monolake arguably remains the best at evoking a man-versus-nature scenario in an abstract, Heart of Darkness sense. But while Silence at times sounded downright scary, Ghosts brings us on a moderately more listenable trip. I’m not sure if Henke intended for this record to sound less beastly than its predecessor, but it’s a welcome shift regardless. Sonically it rests between Silence and old school Monolake, where sharp breaks and dub atmospheres reigned supreme. The field sounds lend an organic tilt to the decidedly chilly record, but Ghosts is alive only in the way that flies idling in the barren desert are alive. It feels not empty, nor dead, but bereft, even when the beats are pounding.

Henke’s choice to move the title track from the last song in the sequence to the first one before the record was finalized turned out to be an excellent one. “Ghosts” is an adrenaline-gathering rush of an introduction, as solid as they come, and it creates the platform for the rest of the ride. With cascades and punches of static, three haunting notes on a digitized organ, and a robotically modified vocal line—“you do not exist”—Monolake depicts, with fervent sonic brushes, a frenetic effort to eject an apparition from inside one’s head. Over the course of the track, the line becomes increasingly distorted, sounding more like “you cannot resist.” And at the song’s conclusion, Henke adds a key word to the vocal: “you do not exist anymore.” We are clearly dealing with a ghost, the absence of absence.

Subsequent songs are more abstract iterations of the theme, and they share the first track’s ominous and alluring complexity. The little considerations often yield big effects: I could feel my heart rate increase each time I heard the synthetic handclap trailed by thunder in “Hitting the Surface”, and the combo of sustained pipe organ and the thwack of the drums in “Aligning the Daemon” can twist my insides in knots. But another Monolake hallmark—treating the record as a gigantic single piece—is on display here too. Henke may be a founding father of contemporary digital media, but his heart is in the vinyl era, when people sat in their easy chairs and listened to their records whole. Ghosts sounds best from start to finish, when the abstract breathiness of “Unstable Matter” is allowed to careen into the walloping “Lilith”, and when the jagged “Foreign Object” ends Ghosts on a note of “to be continued...”—yet another of Monolake’s Midas touches.

8

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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