There was a period of time between the start of 2014 and the end of 2015 when a sect of bands looked like they were ready to take over the world. These bands were all bringing a relatively new style of progressive metal out of the underground and into the forefront. The djent subgenre was never really taken seriously when it first got going, but by the mid-point of this decade, bands like Tesseract, Periphery and The Contortionist, among others, were showing that the genre could be pushed beyond the usual stereotype of syncopated palm-muting of open strings.
However, during the years that followed the boom, this style of music seemed to be losing the strong foundations that had been laid down, with many bands moving away from metal (The Contortionist), some bands breaking up (Elitist and Textures) and others going almost completely quiet. Monuments are an example of one of those latter bands.
The band received critical praise for their 2014 release; The Amanuensis, and the following two years saw the band touring relentlessly in support of this album. However, by 2016 the band seemed to be running on fumes, with vocalist Chris Barretto having been diagnosed with vocal nodules, and now-former drummer Mike Malyan announcing his departure for health reasons. Since then, the band have been almost completely silent, save for the few odd shows here and there, but now finally the band has released a brand new album, Phronesis, their first new material in over four years. The question now is, was the wait worth it?
The album kicks off strongly enough with 'A.W.O.L.', a decent opening track that builds up with a huge orchestral intro before providing the listener with many signature Monuments tropes, albeit feeling slightly stripped down and simplified in comparison to their earlier material. In actual fact, this was a recurring theme with all three singles that were released prior to the album dropping. 'Leviathan' brought some groovier, more complex and more traditionally Monuments riffs to the table, but comparing the three singles to the singles from The Amanuensis, it’s clear that the band have gone for a more simplistic approach here on Phronesis.
That's not to say that this makes the album a dull or boring listen though. It’s important to remember that John Browne is still the guitarist, which means the riffs maintain their high level of rhythm and intricacy. Songs such as 'Ivory', 'Jukai' and 'Hollow King' have some of the grooviest riffs you’ll likely hear all of this year, and where the band has sacrificed a bit of technicality, they have upped the melody. 'Mirror Image' and 'Stygian Blue' are the most melodic, accessible tracks that Monuments have ever written, and they help make Phronesis an all-round more diverse listen. While closing track 'The Watch' combines the technicality and the melody into a fantastic finish to the record, with potentially the most crushing breakdown the band has ever written.
Unfortunately, the album does come with a few flaws. One of the most distinctive parts of Monuments’ sound was Mike Malyan’s drumming, which was always very tasteful and extremely well-performed. The drumming that is present on Phronesis though is by no means poor, but it undoubtedly lacks the intricacies that The Amanuensis had. The other major disappointment that remains prevalent throughout is that it seems like somewhere between The Amanuensis and the present day, vocalist Chris Barretto's ability as a lyricist has taken a hit. Thankfully his vocal performance is still excellent, even after vocal nodules and the subsequent surgery, but how the band looked at the lyrics for a song like 'Stygian Blue' is borderline baffling. A chorus with the line “leave me the fuck alone” sounds like the immature tear-stained diary pages of a 14 year old. Elsewhere the lyrics are, fortunately, not as cringeworthy, but they certainly leave a lot to be desired.
Summarising this record is a challenge, because the band set such a high benchmark for themselves with the Amanuensis, and although this album doesn’t match up to its predecessor, it’s by no means a bad or an un-enjoyable record. The material on here is much more straightforward and accessible, but that doesn’t stop it from having a lot of technicality. The lyrics may be fairly lacklustre, but the instrumentation and the vocals still make for an impressive performance. Overall, the only way of going into this album is not by thinking it’s going to match the brilliance of The Amanuensis, but simply by listening to it as a Monuments album. It shows the band still has a lot of potential, and stands well on its own as ten tracks of well-written modern metal.