It used to be that a band's records enticed you to the live show. Although a studio recording, Monotonix's Drag City debut EP, Body Language, on the other hand, is best appreciated as a memento of the delirious tumult this band puts on live.
You know of a lot of groups that sound roughly like this on record. The Israeli trio is a disciple of the fusion of blues, proto-punk, proto-metal, and garage rock long ago perfected by the Stooges, Blue Cheer, and The MC-5. The lineup consists of drums, guitar (rigged through a bass amp and a guitar amp), and vocals, so you could file Monotonix away as basically the White Stripes or Black Keys plus a singer.
That would be a mistake. Guitarist Yonatan Gat is a master of the type of fuzz-toned rhythm guitar you hear in your head after illegal helmet-to-helmet contact with Earl Campbell. Like their gigs, the album opens with Gat repetitively hammering a primal chord in duet with the drummer. Gat later uncorks some pulverizing bluesy riffage on "Summers and Autumns," provides a lovely chiming intro on "No Metal," and throws in a sweet refrain and other moments of real, rough beauty on the title track.
With hipster-approved bands from Tel Aviv in short supply, and with Israel perpetually much in the news, some might hope to view this album or this band as a window into Israeli society. On the surface, there's no such luck.
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When the band plays live, you can't tell (nor do you care) whether hirsute singer Ami Shalev is singing in English or Hebrew or Pentecostal tongues. On Body Language, though the vocals are just a tad buried in the mix, you can clearly detect the words are in English. Shalev is a fine singer, but there's no clear message to be gleaned from his lyrics.
And yet at the band's shows, you realize the group is indeed making a profound statement. After the half-hour or so of alternately frightening and hilarious mayhem — after Shalev has dumped multiple gallons of garbage on his drummer's head, set fire to his own pants, climbed 30 feet over the stage, perhaps broken a bone or two, all while Gat and the drummer steep the body-surfing crowd in that feral Blue Cheer soup, and while you are genuinely not knowing just what those crazy fuckers are gonna do next — it all makes sense.
No society is tenser than Israel, no country more angst-ridden over its very existence. And only great angst and a tremendous damming up of emotions could breed a need for the sort of intense, soul-cleansing catharsis Monotonix delivers live. The band is far more about agitating your soul than it is about elevating your mind.
To judge this band without seeing it live is folly. Body Language is a better-than-average modern-day psychedelic blues-rock CD. Monotonix, on the other hand, just might be the most intense live rock band in the world. JOHN NOVA LOMAX
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