(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

I Am The Fun Blame Monster (2003) , 7.5/10
Under An Hour (2005), 7/10
Friend And Foe (2007) , 6/10
Mines (2010), 6/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

On the surface, Oregon's Menomena is a traditional power-trio. In reality, they might be the first nail in the coffin of guitar-based rock music. Brent Knopf, the putative guitarist, is not interested in bravura shows or in sophisticated accompaniment, but in bionic synthesis. He composes songs with help from software that facilitates the creation of collages and loops. The resulting debut album, I Am The Fun Blame Monster (Muuuhahaha, 2003), seamlessly blended the aesthetics of baroque psychedelic-pop of the 1960s, melodic progressive-rock of the 1970s, jarring noise-rock of the 1980s, eccentric post-rock of the 1990s and agonizing emo-rock of the 2000s. The artificial music was nonetheless structured in units that conformed by the format of the traditional rock song. The fragile quality of Cough Coughing is not derived from the nonchalant melody but from the absence of the guitar, one of the album's distinctive features. On the other hand, a lot of thought went into scoring the drums, which is usually the last detail of a song. The piano is even more relevant in The Late Great Libido with its romantic looping pattern acting as a platform for the saxophone which in turn acts as a platform for the vocals (again, drummer Danny Seim is particularly creative), and so forth through sequences for xylophone, guitar and again saxophone. Not coincidentally, the song ends with a drum solo. Another soothing piano loop propels the tragic mutations of E. Is Stable, with a guitar simulating the machine that monitors the heartbeat and then weaving a languid wail around the piano. The recitation of Strongest Man in the World is plain and subdued, but it is surrounded by so many mood swings, from clangor and distortion to tender piano and silence, that the song sounds positively scary. Menomena breaks down its songs into sub-songs, each one standing on its own. Joined together, these units achieve a powerful narrative and emotional force. The sequence has a logic, with each unit setting the tone for the following one.
The noir atmosphere sometimes evokes Morphine, as in Twenty Cell Revolt, that largely relies on keyboards and saxophone. and sometimes Chris Isaak, as in Oahu, anchored to a gloomy guitar line and a petulant piano pattern, a ghost of a song that projects the longest shadow, something like an ambient instrumental with ethereal wordless vocals that slowly gets more and more neurotic. The album's intensity peaks with the nine-minute The Monkey's Back, whose first melancholy part, largely penned by jazzy rhythm and an electronic whistle, segues into a vibrant second part, dominated by loud hard-rock guitar.
Menomena are a lo-fi version of Radiohead with more pathos and imagination.

Under An Hour (Film Guerrero, 2005) is an instrumental soundtrack for a dance piece, consisting of three lengthy pieces. The tenuous melodic theme of Water moves from the mandolin to the pipe organ to the piano, slowly acquiring a stronger identity. Played by the piano, the theme grows and expands to become a full-fledged tune, eventually supported by guitar and pipe organ. The whole process of gradual, incremental development recalls Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells with a neoclassical attitude. Flour begins with a minimalist repetition of the horns. The pattern rapidly shifts to the xylophone, releasing the horns for a series of melodic variations. Eventually the two strands become one, originating a quasi-waltzing fanfare in the vein of the Penguin Cafè Orchestra but with a horn refrain worthy of the Love Of Life Orchestra. Light, by far the most abstract piece, opens with a distorted drone in the Indian manner that keeps swirling slowly in the cosmic vacuum until replaced by a digitized blues guitar line. The piece eventually restarts in a much more emphatic tone, with drums, distortions and dub-like reverbs (a turn of events that, overall, ruins the atmosphere). These suites flirt with the avantgarde without getting too serious about it, and probably that's where their charm comes from.

Friend And Foe (2007) was marred by a more serious, almost pompous tone. Perhaps as an unwanted side-effect of Brent Knopf's improving mastery at his method of arrangement, the songs (originally composed on a computer and later performed on instruments) were far more in line with traditional formats, Slightly irregular but catchy and logical (Muscle'n Flo, Weird, and especially Wet and Rusting), whose melody could be a Kinks leftover). Set in a better structured context, Knopf's vocals now revealed their limitations. The more interesting constructions revolve around syncopated rhythms, that seem to inspire disorienting arrangements, often resembling a digital remix of rhythm'n'blues (The Pelican, Air Aid). There also a couple of ditties (Running and Boyscout'n) that belong to an odd form of cabaret, the kind that was espoused in the 1970s by Todd Rundgren. Compared with the experimental level of the first two albums, this was Menomena going mainstream. Sometimes, when the melody borders on pop muzak (My My, West), , the eccentric arrangements seem to be a way to ask for forgiveness. The band has clearly enormous melodic talent, but still has to decide what they want to do with it.

If Menomena were still operating music on the surgical table, Mines (Barsuk, 2010) managed to conceal the whole operation. Its songs sounded more traditional than ever, and the melodies more prominent. Queen Black Acid does undergo slight cosmetic changes during its five minutes but fundamentally it evokes the naive folk-rock tunes of the hippie era. The dirty riff and elastic rhythmic tension of Taos hark back to the nasty post-Rolling Stones British blues-rock. The nostalgic Dirty Cartoons belongs to the repertoire of the existential singer-songwriter of the 1970s. Oh Pretty Boy You're Such A Big Boy (the standout) is an elegant blend of funk and soul of the pre-disco era with the alienated jazz-rock of the Miles Davis school. Both Five Little Rooms and Sleeping Beauty rely on the repetition of a simple circular refrain set in a brainy context. The complexity of their compositional process surfaces in the jarring post-rock ruminations used for the austere psychodrama of Tithe and the convoluted pseudo-jazz counterpoint to Bote. The album closes with the piano ballad Intil that flirts with church-like intensity. Unfortunately, half of the material is neither one nor the other: neither engagingly melodic nor creatively eccentric. Just passable.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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