The Psychotic Monks
Private Meaning First
Fat Cat Records
The Psychotic Monks have the best band name I’ve heard in a good long time. Hailing from France, they formed in the winter of 2015, and in 2017, they released Silence Slowly & Madly Shines, a series of essentially studio experiments. It was brilliant. They’re back with album number two, Private Meaning First, out now on Fat Cat Records.
They retreated out to the countryside from Saint-Ouen, a northern suburb of Paris to record the album in an old farm house both too small and too cramped, in almost complete isolation from the world around them . The deliberate claustrophobia of the composition and recording experience runs rampant across and around the album. Listened to in the right atmosphere, late at night, with the lights low and on headphones, this album will have you double-checking the locks, looking under the bed, constantly turning around, feeling someone or something creep up on you.
Private Meaning First begins with ‘Pale Dream,’ a moody, close track of guitar and bass feedback, synth, a steady, creeping beat, and hushed, muted lyrics. Musically, The Psychotic Monks are somewhere between Joy Division, the Jesus Lizard, Public Image Ltd., Tricky, and Sonic Youth. There is that claustrophobia, which is manifest in the closeness of the music, but it also explodes into nastiness of Tricky’s music, the twistedness of the Jesus Lizard, and the loose feeling of Sonic Youth. And they are definitely located in the canon of post-punk with angular guitars and discordant vocals.
As ‘Pale Dream’ fades away, ‘Isolation’ begins in a fugue of not quite white noise, like something off a Pink Floyd album, before the drums and guitars kick in, our first insistent, drummed beat, our first song-sounding structure of the album, the bass and drums and angular guitars are insistent, the vocals (tout en anglais, for the record) are distant, buried in the mix, as the guitars explode in both speakers and the synth (I presume) threatens to strangle us. This is some wicked, wicked music.
It is rare that a band is this successful at creating such a feeling in their music, it is rare we feel the closeness that the band intended in the studio. And this is not the kind of music that usually comes out of old farm houses in the countryside. This is urban music, this is music from and of the city, of disused buildings, late at night, the shadows from streetlamps maybe not reaching every corner of the space. This is the inside of a warehouse with 500 of your new best friends, in white light and darkness, the sound crashing out of the PA and threatening to swamp you all out on its wave.
Since I received this album two or so weeks ago, I have listened to it every day, I have listened to it in all manners available to me, late at night on the headphones, in the middle of the day crashing out of the speakers, up in my home office (as I am right now), enveloped in the sound, in the car going 75 on the Interstate. And I really can’t get enough of it.
In addition to that closeness, the music is at times brash, in your face and loud, though I wouldn’t say aggro. They call on their ancestors, not just the ones I’ve listed above, but also Throbbing Gristle, Ministry, and so on. They take all of that in and then they mix it up and spit it back out. They aren’t really ones for giving themselves names, nor do they consistently, it appears, play the same instruments all the time. They claim Francis Bacon as their biggest influence and categorise their music as ‘post-Orwell,’ though that last one actually makes hella sense.
But it’s not just the music crashing and choking, it’s also the vocals. The singer’s voice is purposefully down in the mix, it is purposefully distant, the French accent occasionally popping out, dialled into the music, into the atmosphere. I find the position of the singer in a band to be an interesting one, as it is not always the case that the voice and the music go together, they mesh. Sometimes the voice can drown out the music, or vice versa. And sometimes the wrong person is singing. But, here, in ‘A Coherent Appearance,’ the way in which the chorus of sorts is spat out, in that accent, and the desperation, as the music fades away, man, this is why I love music. And then the song explodes back into the driving nastiness before finally dying away.
In ‘Emotional Disease,’ as one guitar consistently hits the same note, strangulated in the right speaker, there is a second guitar, one that works against the song, discordantly, it flitters, it floats, it soars, it challenges the other guitar, it challenges the vocals, and all of this over top a bassline that Jah Wobble would be proud of.
‘Confusions’ is one of my favourites, a stutter-stepped track that explodes into this straight-ahead beat and the twin guitars discordant and strangulated and distorted in the speakers, taking on the vocals, daring them to make themselves heard above the cacophony.
The band have released a short film, entitled ‘WE HAVE REACHED THE OTHER SIDE AND SINCE WE HAD EMOTIONS,’ to go with the banging track, ‘Closure,’ another favourite. The Psychotic Monks worked with Clara Maguerat for the short film, she is a young photographer/videographer in Paris, and the goal was to show daily life ‘at its most honest,’ and entirely filmed in the Paris métro. She states
It seemed important to us not to try to just illustrate the tracks, but to give dialogues between images and sound. As for the musical process, we wanted to show a certain vision of society, consequently of ourselves, while keeping a place for imagination and abstraction. We tried to get intimate, go through and evoke feelings of humiliation and guilt. Admit our need for lightness, despite the gravity of these emotions, and the tragic absurdity of the situations we witness. In the video for Closure, I wanted to direct the gaze on an ordinary life scene – a moment speaking for itself – and which questions how we look at each other, how we ignore each other. We made the choice together to use this video, rather than spotlighting the four of them, because it more accurately represented the intention of the song.
The title of the short film comes from the chorus of the track, and that close, claustrophobic feel that came from the farm house in the countryside is seamlessly translated onto the métro, Maguerat shot from the hip, literally, occasionally blurring the focus, we get a lot of jackets and shoes and backs and hands in the shot. The occasional still shots out the train window are jarring. Well, whatevs, don’t take my word for it, watch it:
This album came out on 27 November, and it is most definitely going to appear in my Best of 2020 list later this month.