Monolithe – Nebula Septem Review

For reasons both unknown and likely unknowable, I am a complete mark for the sort of mathematical and musical formalism with which Monolithe has constructed Nebula Septem. For this seventh album, the seven musicians of Monolithe wrote seven songs, each exactly seven minutes long. Further, each of the seven songs on the album is played in ascending order of the natural minor keys of the Western scale (represented by the first letter of each song title: “Anechoic Aberration,” “Burst in the Event,” “Coil Shaped Volutions,” and so on). Does this do much to the actual experience of listening to Nebula Septem? No, probably not. But it’s neat, and it at least invites speculation about what other hidden patterns might emerge from listening deeply to these powerful vibrations.

None of that matters terribly, however, when the music rules so hard. “Anechoic Aberration,” for example, pulls out a wicked interval-skipping main riff and then almost immediately drapes it with cosmic synths and expansively melodic guitar leads. You might think to yourself, “Hang on a second, I thought Monolithe used to be more of a space-tinged funeral doom band?” But then before you can finish that thought, changes are you’ll be thinking, “Oh hot damn this is great. What was I saying?” And really, that’s the story throughout Nebula Septem: if you’ve been a longtime follower of this sadly underrated French band, you might at first find its highly embellished set of sounds and relatively propulsive songwriting somewhat at odds with the band’s previous approach (particularly on their first four albums), but the more you listen, the more you sense that the same exploratory spirit has animated it all, and those surface-level differences fall away.

Here’s an even shorter version: Nebula Septem is a great fucking heavy metal album.

Your Last Rites friend and mine Zach Duvall insists on calling Nebula Septem a “slow Crimson II,” and while I hate to grant him the point, there’s something to it. Sébastien Pierre’s drawn-out and slightly raspy bellow occasionally sounds even a little like Mikael Akerfeldt’s performance on the first Crimson album, and on the whole, Monolithe has moved almost seamlessly from clean, streamlined funeral-ish doom to extremely melodic doom/death that sometimes feints in a progressive death metal direction like Edge of Sanity, and sometimes leans towards the more melancholic melodic death metal style of a band like Insomnium. The engaging outro of “Burst in the Event” drags some evocative guitar leads across a sparsely chugging openness that induces a pleasantly disorienting tension.

Release date: January 26, 2018.
Label: Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions.
“Engineering the Rip” opens with some almost Depeche Mode-worthy synths, but quickly trips into a sequence of fleet arpeggios. In its final two minutes, it breaks out into some slow-motion wailing guitar solos and a crunchy sheen that underpins a gothy symphonic romp that calls to mind the best earworms of latter-day Rotting Christ or Septic Flesh. As great as the album is as a whole, the closing trio really works as, if not a unified suite, then as an extraordinarily smooth glide from one great idea to the next, and closes out the album on a very fine plateau. The elongated outro of “Fathom the Deep” becomes an unshakable modal bounce that invites strangely spiraling guitar leads to play around and across its grooves, while album closer “Gravity Flood” plays up the ambient, space-hailing synth aspects that have underpinned the entire album. The song patiently thumps away and flirts with darkwave and electronic industrial elements like a sadder version of Mortiis’s Smell the Rain or Frontline Assembly’s Echogenetic before giving way to an achingly lovely twin guitar section that feels like stargazing, inexplicably, while standing in a rainstorm.

Earlier I said that the album’s formalism likely doesn’t do anything for the experience of listening to the album, but I think that’s not quite right. With their voluble, searching, patient music, Monolithe seems to open itself to the universe and the seeming formlessness of space. And of course space, for all its incomprehensible vastness, is not without order. Rather, the elegance of the laws which govern space and give it order may yet be beyond our science’s ability to fully grasp. The tragedy of humanity’s dogged pursuit of scientific knowledge is that we know our knowledge will always be incomplete; the beauty of that dogged pursuit, however, is that we keep doing it anyway. Monolithe has not claimed to find some occult seven-part structure to space that justifies the musical formalism of Nebula Septem, but in their own small way, they have imposed a constraint on their practice and thus staked a claim: here is what we think we can do with this.

The question, then, is: what will you do to help define what else we can do with this?

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

  1. Awesome band, great review, get stuck in!


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