|Over the past few years, I have written 27 reviews for kevchino.com. In some cases, I have loved the album or DVD I have reviewed; in others, my opinion has been lukewarm. However, it has never been difficult -- even painful -- for me to review an album. Until now.
A series of tracks improvised by Andy Partridge (the brains behind XTC), Barry Andrews (XTC’s original keyboard player), and drummer Martyn Barker, Monstrance will be released on Partridge’s vanity label, Ape House, on April 3rd. Many XTC fans the world over have been eagerly awaiting Monstrance because it reunites Partridge and Andrews, who have not played together since Andrews left XTC in 1978. Additionally, Partridge’s previous instrumental collaboration, 1994’s Through the Hill with Harold Budd, was quite lovely indeed. As a fan of XTC for many years now, I have stood steadfastly by Partridge’s extracurricular projects. I thought the nine-volume collection of demos and song sketches, Fuzzy Warbles, was fabulous. I have enjoyed the work that he has done with and for other musicians. I think that, without question, he is one of the finest popular musical minds of the past 30 years.
That having been said, I find Monstrance to be almost unlistenable. There is none of the sweetness that characterized Through the Hill -- or, indeed, any of Partridge’s other instrumental compositions. The first track, “I Lovely Cosmonaut,” contains almost nine-and-a-half minutes of guitar echoes and screeches. Lovely it is not. While the second track, “Winterwerk,” is marginally better (in that it has a theme and a melody), it sounds as if Partridge is playing the guitar with metal fingernails. On the back of the first disc, Partridge writes, “There was no rehearsal or discussion about key, tempo or feel and no overdubbing. It just came out like this.” Perhaps such a discussion would have lent these songs some focus. Perhaps overdubbing would have lent these songs some spine. I’m not asking for the sort of melodies and harmonies that came to define XTC; that wouldn’t be the aim of such a project. I’m simply asking for something without the drone; without the sharp edges; without the laziness. While the playing is uniformly fine, Monstrance is no feast. It’s more like a cold pancake.
So what is the market for an album like Monstrance? Modern dance companies? German film majors? Serial killers? Danny Elfman? It certainly isn’t fans of Andy Partridge, Barry Andrews, or Martyn Baker. It is simply too experimental -- too jagged -- to satisfy. This album would have been much easier to stomach if it had been, for example, a free download on the Ape House website or a giveaway CD for some alternative magazine. As much as it breaks my heart to say this, I don’t know if I’ll ever listen to Monstrance again.
In a recent interview with The Onion, Partridge said this about Monstrance: “Some people will like it. I'm pretty pleased with it. I’ve always liked the idea of improvised music. Improvised anything. It’s what conversation is.” While that may be true, this was not a conversation that I relished being a part of. I hope -- dear God, I hope -- that Monstrance isn’t Andy Partridge’s last word. That would be a shame indeed.