Monomotion's 'Fujisan' Effortlessly Synthesizes Beats and Ambience
Monomotion have crafted a gorgeous suite of songs that you can dance to and relax with in a beautifully satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that began in 2015.
26 July 2019
Sometimes you have to go back to back, or even just look back before you can look or go forward. In the case of Monomotion (comprising Parisian Erol Engintalay and his frequent collaborator Yoann Feynmann), we have to look back on Fujisan's predecessors Behind the Moon (2015) and Leaving (2017) before we can consider the new work with any true perspective. The new piece is the final part of a trilogy of EPs that comprise a wonderfully satisfying whole. So while Fujisan stands alone as a gorgeous suite of songs in almost perfect equilibrium, it makes the most sense when considered in the context of its companion pieces. Also, the idea of motion contained in the band's name is germane not only to forward and backward glances, but because motion and its opposite are a key part of the dynamic in play here. Engintalay was immobilized after a fall around the time of the first edition of the trilogy, Behind the Moon, which was composed during his recovery. No doubt, he wondered about his past, present, and future mobility.
There's a second issue to consider when viewing this trilogy, and it may seem slightly tangential and fanciful until you see it play out. Because, while speaking of trilogies coming out of France, some inquiring and culturally avaricious minds may recall the Three Colors film trilogy directed by Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski. The Three Colors trilogy was a captivating and enchanting exploration of themes and motifs around the tricolor of the French flag, wherein blue stood for liberty, white for equality, and red for fraternity. And while there is no suggestion whatsoever that Monomotion's Engintalay in any way followed this pattern deliberately, there is nevertheless a rather uncanny consonance between the works. It's relatively easy to map notions of liberty onto Behind the Moon, equality onto Leaving, and fraternity onto the new work. But we will let this notional theory play out organically rather than force it in any overwrought or overdetermined way onto the music itself, which is exquisite and beautiful from the first note of Behind the Moon's "Dawn" to the dying fall of Fujisan's closing pastoral of "Luck of the Mountains".
"Dawn", which opens Behind the Moon, suggests an imminent lift-off into the dancefloor stratosphere, swelling in a beatless wave of delicious sound to a rhythmic pulse that makes you think your night is off to a great start. But this proves to be a bit of false dawn (please excuse the creaking pun) because the track pretty quickly backs off from that intensity and transitions into something more sedate and dubby. And then it picks up the beat again in a dynamic that continues throughout the EP. All of this feels like something of a feint, and it also sums up how Monomotion works in miniature. It's as if we are being taken by the hand to the dancefloor with expectations of a jubilant bacchanal, only to be waylaid by a very comfortable looking couch with some friendly people we can talk to for a while. It's not as frustrating as that might sound, but it is somewhat wrong-footing, almost literally. Behind the Moon whetted our appetite for dance and then withdrew the opportunity in a pretty tantalizing way, although it did provide a certain amount of cardiac/endorphin satisfaction.
Indeed the dynamic of Behind the Moon suggests uncertainty about motion, at the same time that it strains toward it. It's the most beat-heavy of the three EPs as if Engintalay was composing these tracks with a dream of one day being able to move freely on the dancefloor as he had done before his dangerous fall. There is, then, at the very least a dream of liberty enacted on this first EP, as symbolized by this oscillation between modest dancefloor bangers and interludes more suitable for the chillout room. It's as if we are trying not to over-exert ourselves, but we are also eagerly attempting multiple forays in the direction of where the action is.
So if Behind the Moon does approximate a thematic instantiation of the "liberty" as it might be expressed on the dancefloor. Its successor Leaving departs for more bucolic pastures and a flattening out of the sound that overthinkers might conceivably map onto a meditation on the notion of "equality" or some version thereof. Karl Marx's utopian consideration of the dignity of labor and the possibility that one can work, play and philosophize in equal measure, most succinctly contained in The German Ideology, contains a purple passage about being able to "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner". Leaving seems to be addressing the part about fishing in the afternoon. There is a certain democratic pastoral about Leaving that feels bucolic and paradisiacal, as we have passed directly through the chill-out room and into a meadow in the afterlife. Brothers and sisters at our ease under the same dappled and mellow sunlight. There's much more of an ambient feel to Leaving. Indeed an almost elegiac tone pervades this, the shortest of the EPs, but it also suggests an aural version of utopian democracy that is a perfect continuation of the liberation energy broadcast on Behind the Moon.
All of which brings us to Fujisan. Engintalay said in the press release that this new work contains "new layers of empathy and human connection" and also referred to Feynmann as his "brother in crime". So the mapping of the Three Colors analogy, where the final piece of that filmic suite was red, for fraternity, is complete. Fujisan's opener "North Cascades" picks up where Leaving's closer "Opacity" left off, with an aqueous ambience that is both energizing and relaxing at the same time. This final EP of the trilogy achieves a synthesis of its two predecessors as if resolving the dialectic of Behind the Moon's frenetic energy and Leaving's more meditative energy.
Fujisan still plays with notions of motion and stasis, but in a way that seems to acknowledge the contrasting dynamics of the music that preceded it. So while "North Cascades" is eminently peaceful and almost sublime, the following track "Mango" dabbles in a modest beats-per-minute ratio before we return to the sedate ambience of "Seed". But it is with "Ecocline Patterns" that Fujisan finds it's apotheosis, and indeed this might be the highlight of the entire trilogy. The words "ecocline" means to describe "a gradual, continuous change in the species composition between two ecosystems or communities of organisms across an environmental gradient".
Those are words for naturalists rather than the more plastic forms of electronic music. But the word and its definition seem instructive here, as Fujisan seems to navigate between cultural ecosystems and communities. Indeed "Ecocline Patterns" epitomizes the blending of beats and ambiences that Monomotion have been essaying throughout this sequence of EPs. The only sadness here is that "Ecocline Patterns" is entirely too short at barely three-and-a-half minutes, but this tantalizing glimpse at the realization of Engintalay's whole vision is still supremely satisfying.
The word "ambient" is useful here in several ways, one of which is the obvious use that suggests a musical category of tonal and atmospheric instrumental sound. Ambience, the adjectival noun related to it, and beloved of restaurant critics among others, suggests an aura or an atmosphere, and ambient music is viewed somewhat pejoratively as "background" music because it is assumed to be only for decorative and secondary purposes. The root of the word is "ambi", which suggests, from both French and Latin, a sense of "going around". Erol would probably be familiar with the French origins of this word, naturally enough. But there is also the other root definition which is to suggest "both", as in ambiguity, or ambidextrousness, the possibility of two things happening at once.
That combination of an atmospheric tonality that can also create a certain kind of dichotomy makes for an interesting paradox, and it is here that we find what might be the heart of Monomotion's central identifying mode. The "going around" part of the definition suggests that the music somehow swirls and encircles us. Meanwhile, the "both-ness" of the root word suggests that the swirling and encircling is not perhaps as monolithically dull as the pejorative and colloquial understanding of the musical genre might lead you to believe. That's not to say that there is anything in the least bit sinister or unsettling about Monomotion. But there is an interesting dynamic at play in the work that suggests a double energy of movement and stasis. This is also not, by any reasonable definition, "ambient" music. But thinking about the word and its categorical and etymological possibilities can be helpful when trying to locate yourself in relation to this work.
Fujisan itself passes by almost imperceptibly, not because it is bland but rather because of its persistent glissando, as if the entire project is one of aural elision. This is by far the most fluid of the trilogy, and perhaps rather than a comparison to the Three Colors project we might be better off thinking about these EPs as exercises in elemental music, with Fujisan representing water, although it's hard to know what the others might be in that anology, and this one could just as well be air for all its breezy nonchalance. But really, it's all water, when you remember that Behind the Moon starts with a drip-drip-drip that turns into a steadier stream and then a pulse.
Fujisan ends with a coda that somewhat recalls the beats of Behind the Moon and the pastoralia of Leaving in "Luck of the Mountains", which in turn recalls, if once again inadvertently, the sublime of Mountains' minor classic Centralia from 2013. And while this feels like a very satisfying ending to a four-year-long journey, with the seven tracks of both Behind the Moon and Fujisan perfectly bookending the five tracks of Leaving, Engintalay is keen to point out that this is "only the beginning of the Monomotion story", as he begins work on his first full-length album. If these three works are the appetizer, our appetites can only have been whetted for the entrée that is to follow.