Thumpermonkey – Sleep Furiously (progressive rock)
Believer’s Roast, 2012, CD album, 50m 4s
Injunctions to sleep in a particular manner crop up from time to time as album titles. Hope & Social’s last album length release was called Sleep Sound, which is perhaps the kind of sleeping to which most of us are accustomed; either that or badly. Furiously is another matter altogether: normally, a high fever is a prerequisite for such an approach to somnolence, although once, when I was eighteen, I dropped a tab of transcendentally strong acid immediately before going to sleep, and I have to say my repose was, if not precisely furious, decidedly frantic. Is Sleep Furiously a comparable sort of experience? Well, it’s definitely disorientating, and I don’t get the impression that helping their listeners to orient themselves is one of Thumpermonkey’s central priorities. Although much of it seems gnomic, all of these songs have a powerfully compelling internal logic, so much so that what might strike us as nonsense tends instead to give us the sense that our own grasp of reality is subtly warped; if only we could adequately decode this music, we’d be sorted. That might sound like a working definition of schizophrenia, but when I do manage to make sense of a Thumpermonkey lyric, its animus seems to be satire rather than psychosis, although it may take the psychotic as its subject, regardless; the cover of Sleep Furiously, with its bundle of giant hairless rats, puts me in mind of Zappa’s Weasels Rip My Flesh.
However obscure the lyrical thrust of these songs may be, musical meanings are harder to obfuscate; the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and textures will always mean exactly what it feels like to hear them. There is an element of the surreal and the nonsensical in the musical materials, in the way they frustrate the syntactical expectations of a conventionally calibrated lughole, but ultimately, musical sounds are not about ‘sense’ or ‘reality’; the music on this album departs from the conventional to the same degree that its meanings depart from repetitions of the same things that have been said in thousands of songs in the past. Nothing is odd for the sole sake of being odd, but because there is something odd to be said. Writing this review provided me with a welcome pretext to review Thumpermonkey’s back catalogue, and I can confirm that seems to have been the case throughout. This is a band that proceeds from a unique set of creative premises, unique even among ‘progressive’ ensembles, and they seem a long way yet from exhausting their implications; genuinely creative musicians will move on to new premises when necessary, but there is still a lot to say about those that Thumpermonkey started out with. Sleep Furiously is ample evidence of that; it’s much the same sort of thing as the earlier albums, which is good, because they still have some explaining to do, in my view.
The album is predominantly made of rock, but it exploits a wider range of rock’s expressive potential than is usual in that genre: when it’s loud, it’s pretty fucking heavy, although it falls some way short of the sound pressure maxima established in the last twenty years of extreme metal R&D; when it’s quiet, it can be very quiet, and the contrast is dramatic. Thumpermonkey’s use of dynamics is more sophisticated than that might suggest, however: brutally steep verse-to-chorus ratios are an established formula in rock, and it’s a pretty banal manoeuvre (if effective), but Sleep Furiously successively inhabits a whole differentiated range of dynamic positions. To even be aware of more than, say, three distinct dynamic levels is one of the things that separates the men from the boys in terms of musicianship; here they are deployed to develop complex dramatic narratives, rather than simply cranking up to phallic crescendi, and they are layered, the amplitude of each vocal and instrumental voice modulating to meet the expressive needs of the moment, in relation to all the others. Notice that in this paragraph I haven’t mentioned melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics or anything else yet, except dynamics; this is proper grown-up music, an observation which its absurdist humour may obscure from the casual listener.
The music is vertically consonant, almost without exception, but in its melodies and harmonic rhythms it evinces an astringent tension similar to that found in modern jazz (although mostly with a very different sound); there is always an identifiable key centre, and home is usually the same at the end of a song or section that it was at the beginning, but it shifts too often and too abruptly through phrases for the lazy ear to derive much comfortable diatonic succor… Sometimes the effect is mere surrealist whimsy, but more often it’s genuinely moving, twisting the affective faculties into unaccustomed shapes, forcing the listener to feel specifically ‘this’, rather than the readymade responses they are accustomed to feel when they hear a particular sort of sound. Rhythmically, the music is equally creative, but its phrasing is subtly complex, not aggressively complicated; again, rhythm and phrasing are employed in the service of larger creative goals. All the elements of the music are orchestrated in a coherent accord with the lyrical content, rather than any one aspect taking priority.
As to that lyrical content, it’s probably the best way to get around to talking about the meanings of the work as a whole, as the totality is so well integrated. I admitted at the outset that the songs are mostly a bit of a mystery to me: that’s not something that interferes with my listening pleasure, as I’m a human being, and consequently accustomed to uncertainty, but less adventurous listeners may be uncomfortable with the light shone on that aspect of their personhood. This is one of the principal truths that Sleep Furiously has to offer, although I don’t mean to imply that the songs are lyrically nonsensical; they take some work, and once decoded offer narratives from disconcerting (and disconcerted) subject positions, positions from which conventional social discourse is as gnomic as the lyrics initially appear. Characters puzzle over others, particularly the objects of their desire, as though struggling with Rubik’s Cubes. Another recurrent theme is a hilariously warped portrayal of the lives of middle-class intellectuals, a group of people whose social aptitudes frequently border on the autistic in any case… (I should know) Unless provided with written lyrics, I don’t make their analysis central to my reviews, but the experience Thumpermonkey proffer the interested listener here is consistent with these general impressions; some effort is required to engage with the music, and the rewards are certainly stimulating, and funny, but also disturbing.
Personally, I appreciate being disturbed; it’s a comforting reminder of how little I know, and however strange this music is, much of it is also stirringly heavy or ethereally pretty (or both at the same time, a neat trick if you can pull it off). I have to guard myself against valuing music purely from a nerdy admiration for the musicianship involved, and that’s certainly an option here, because this is some highly sophisticated work; however, all the considerable skill on display in the course of Sleep Furiously is somehow subsumed in its compositional rigour. It’s hard to see past how good the music is, to how hard it was to make, which is just as it should be, because it never really matters how technically demanding an artwork is to conceive or execute. What matters is the effect it has on its audience; for this small particle thereof, truth is beauty, beauty is truth, and Thumpermonkey’s latest album is amply provided with both.