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What The Frequency, Kenneth?, Crush With Eyeliner, Bang & Blame...
Comme le suggère le titre, cet album sera le plus brutal de REM, avec un véritable baroud d'honneur pour Peter Buck, le guitariste. Il opte généralement pour un gros son, passe guitare à l'endroit, guitare à l'envers, "What's The Frequency, Kenneth ?", lâche des accords plombés au trémolo et mine bien le terrain. Michael Stipe, le chanteur, va exécuter des vocaux percutants avec une rage peu commune. Mais la règle du jeu pour cet album sera pour lui d'essayer des registres différents. En véritable imitateur, "King Of Comedy", il va parodier des styles de voix (falsetto) issus des 70's et du glam rock de l'époque, notamment dans "Tongue". Les textes ne se veulent pas consensuels, comme d'habitude, et la voix joue à cache-cache avec les guitares, pour parler sexe sur "Star 69", et chanter une superbe ballade, «Strange Currencies», typique de ce qu'est capable d'offrir REM dans ses instants de tendresse. Un disque qui ne se veut pas plus commercial que les autres, et qui s'avère même distrayant, malgré son titre. --José Ruiz
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If 'Automatic' was the first sign that REM was breaking out of the pretentious, chirpy, god-awful bubble gum of 'Green' and 'Out Of Time' by becoming more serious and austere (albeit extremely low-energy), then 'Monster' finished REM's re-emergence as a newer, better-than-ever and extremely hard-rocking ensemble. Gone are any additional instruments (strings, brass, mandolins, etc.), this is just the four REM dudes rocking their socks off. They also seem to be enjoying the new energy level, and that sense of enthusiasm permeates the album.
For you gloom n' doom fans (me too!) there are still the tormented 'Let Me In' and the wistful and countrified 'Strange Currencies', also the ethereal raga-rock of 'You'. But this album is mostly about the rockers. From 'What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" on, this CD never lets up the loud, buzzing and partified atmosphere. I also like how Stipe sings in a variety of voices, falsetto on 'Tongue', and a Gordon Lightfoot-esque growl for 'Crush With Eyeliner'. Other faves are 'I Took Your Name' and the chugging 'Circus Envy'. The only tune I'm not 100 percent behind is 'King Of Comedy', although it has great lyrics, it's a wee bit grating.
All in all, if you like REM, AND you like to rock, pick this one up. Used, it's often cheaper than any other album by them (probably due to most fans wanting to hear 'Losing My Religion' redone another 1000 times...).
That idea of a R.E.M Arena Rocker Album is what gave birth to MONSTER. Out of this album, not only was there a distinctly different sound in contrast to the flowing melodies of OUT OF TIME and sorrowful tone of AFTP, there was also a distinctly different look to the band. Michael came out, head shaved to the scalp with a greater spring in his step and a Elvis-pelvis, but Mike also came out in amazingly hilarious glam-rock leisure suits (all of them the same, except the color). These were no longer the shy post-collegians with their art-rock style; this was an R.E.M we had never seen before and certainly hadn't heard before.
From the most anthemic opening to an R.E.M album that has ever existed with "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" to the Sonic Youth/Iggy and The Stooges-influenced fuzz-ridden "Crush With Eyeliner" to the loin-straining "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" to the hard pounding pulse of "Star 69" to the brightly melodic "Strange Currencies" to the tragic and erotic imagery of "Bang and Blame" to the drunken torch-song piano lyricism of "Tongue" to the crazy angry distortion of "I Took Your Name" to the epic fuzziness of "Circus Envy" to the rhythmic, sexually-charged finale of "You", it's a pretty amazing album from start to finish.
You might have noticed there were two songs I didn't include: "King of Comedy" and "Let Me In". "King of Comedy" is an interesting enough indictment of celebrity-personal-life-as-entertainment, but musically, it's pretty weak. That's okay, though. Even on the very best albums, there's usually one weak song. "Let Me In" I didn't include because that song deserves its own paragraph.
This album was released in late September of 1994. Just a few months before, many of the youth and many of the creative minds of the time were devastated to learn that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, the adoptive father of the Gen-X zeitgeist, had killed himself. Not long before, Michael Stipe had spent time with Kurt and his widow Courtney Love of the bourgeoning riot-grrl band Hole, and they had all become good friends, but there was something that Michael saw in Kurt, which was a deeply-felt pain. After all, both Michael and Kurt had, in many ways, the de facto poster boys of this movement of "Alternative Rock" that killed the hair-metal pop/rock of old and they were both forced into a much more public existence. While Michael had much more time to prepare for this, and in some ways, celebrated it, Kurt was not cut from the same cloth. The song "Let Me In" is Michael's cry to the heavens almost of an apology that he lacked the ability to help, or at most, to stop Kurt. The savage, mournful guitar (played not by Peter but by Mike) plays a violent dirge as Michael's raw vocals cut to the very heart of the matter. The agony is clear throughout the song, but nearer to the end, Peter comes in on one-finger organ playing (that he likened to a roller-rink organ sound in an older interview) and it lifts the song further still. The lack of percussion has been parsed down to Bill simply playing a rhythmic tambourine. It's also worth noting that while I don't know if this song was recorded with Mike playing a guitar belonging to Kurt (given to the band by Courtney), every time the song was played in concert, Mike played it on that guitar. This song of fury and sorrow is, to me, one of the most powerful songs R.E.M ever did and it is the highlight of the album for me.
The complaints about the constant sonic assault from the feedback-fuzz sound of Peter's guitar to Mike's heavier bass to Bill's pounding drums is so "old". It makes the haters of this album seem like they're in their 80's telling those noisy kids down the street to keep it down. Even worse are the complaints that "This isn't the old R.E.M!". That drives me insane. It's basically the same cries of Beatles fans when they started making albums like REVOLVER. It's not what you grew up with, and that's the whole point. No band can be creatively successful putting out the same old thing album after album. Bands need to evolve. R.E.M needed to, but more importantly, WANTED to evolve, and it wasn't for something as base as "cashing in". Believe me, they made more than enough money from the sales of their previous two albums to retire very comfortably. I think it's just a cop-out from fans who just wanted Michael, Mike, Peter and Bill to go on forever with the whole college rock/jangly guitar/sweet melodies and harmonies/politically-aware content. While I love that stuff, I also found it in me to love this album and consider it one of their best. I still think that Michael put it best when he called OUT OF TIME their "Love" album, AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE their "Loss" album, and MONSTER their "D**k" album.
When I'm 80, I'm still going to be turning up my hearing aid for MONSTER so that I can show people how rock and roll used to rock in the 90's.
Point #1. The album is unique for REM. They may have flirted with the idea of stoner rock, glam rock, grunge rock, or whatever else you wanna call this record, but they had never released a full album of it.
Point #2. The album is risky. After salvaging their career by having good "pop" songs on "Document," REM find themselves in an identical situation; trying to keep old fans while they try something new.
Point #3. The album heralded (at least) 5 singles and had millions of buyers, many of whom had not listened to the band previously. (So goes the "No Hits" theory so many reviewers have referred to. REM obviously thinks differently.)
Point #4. REM picked up a few new fresh-faced fans, while losing a considerable amount of hard-cores. People have a very hard time stretching themselves, experiencing new things, facing the unknown. Many vintage fans would be happy if REM kept producing and selling the same album over and over (referring to the similar song structure and sounds on the first four albums.) As soon as a new element is introduced to a familiar equation, the subject ceases to be comfortable, and the listener feels "cheated."
Opinion: I find this to be neither REM's best nor their worst album. But I find it to be the band's most important record, because they stray so far off from their patented sound. They explore. They test. And it angers many old fans, while it could be helping them to learn to broaden their horizons, so to speak. It happened in 1987 when REM tried to release something that was different from their first four albums. It has happened to Radiohead, Metallica, Tori Amos, and several other rock-icon bands. People hate change. I find it invigorating and essential to our minds. I believe in the philosophy that we should "never stop moving." Always be looking for a new way to see things. Besides, "Kenneth," "Crush With Eyeliner," and "I Took Your Name" are in my opinion some of their best work. Anyhow, how effective or bad the album is should be stated as a matter of opinion. But I love REM, and I suggest that any new fan (granted they have not heard "Monster") listen to the album with open ears. Overall: 6 out of 10.
In the early 90s, alt. rock finally gave way to its twisted underground cousin grunge and REM was the sole alternative group to creatively reap the benefits. An obvious touchstone for the latest strain of Seattle rockers, REM quickly realized the profound influence groups like The Melvins, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana were exerting on modern alt. rock and wasted no time in adapting accordingly. What resulted was "Monster", the band's ultimate attempt to completely demolish their godfather status and begin anew.
To properly achieve this, the sessions for "Monster" began with a thorough cleansing of any and all of the group's residual style before embarking upon a major overhaul of their trademark sound. Working straight from the ground up, REM cranked the guitars, put some extra mikes around the drums, and cut a blistering set of galloping, feedback laden rockers, all spearheaded by Michael Stipe's fiercely emotive voice. Peter Buck's guitar buried the band in impenetrable fuzz, allowing only his collaborators primal energy to shine through while the funky rhythm section pushed continually onward. The entire studio reverberated with the band's not so good vibrations and when the sessions were over, every ounce of the band's energy had been transferred to tape.
Overall, "Monster's" message was relentless and bold, but REM also had the tact not to overdo it. Unlike so many of the 90s superstar hopefuls, REM only adopted the grunge sound as a basis for building their own unique vision instead of hijacking it as a one way ride to MTV. While certain elements of "Monster" are without a doubt borrowed; the trashy Cobain style solos and the Sonic Youthesque skronk come to mind; the band constantly strives to accommodate their own gentler leanings within "Monster's" forbidding, harsh atmosphere. Crooning lullabies like "Strange Frequencies" and "Tongue" are cleverly placed throughout the album to avoid repetition and due primarily to their rarity, these softer numbers emotional impact is increased exponentially.
Furthermore, REM have no qualms about exposing their marketable side, providing the album with suitably high budget production values and never straying too far from a catchy riff or melody, even when employing the talents of the not so commercial Thurston Moore. "Monster" therefore succeeds tremendously as both a sampling of the finer points of grunge and as another classic alt. rock album without alienating fans of either genre. A band that's always been perfectly content with their past triumphs yet never eager to revel in them, REM will forever remain a respectable, active member of the alternative music community and "Monster" shows exactly why.