Ex-Voto isthe latest album release from electro-jazz outfit Monocled Man. Assembled by trumpeter / programmer / producer Rory Simmons, Monocled Man is a boundary-crossing project that combines the freedom of improvisation found in contemporary jazz, with powerful and atmospheric digital sound manipulation. Guitarist Chris Montague (Troyka, Squarepusher) and drummer Jon Scott (Kairos 4Tet, Sons of Kemet XL) provide support to Simmons’ matching of comprehensive musical chops and fearless imagination. The resultant work glues together the atmosphere of Massive Attack inspired dub and Fourtet influenced ambience, with freewheeling improv amongst the trio itself.
Inspired by the dystopian novels of the 19th century British author Samuel Butler (most prominently the book ‘Erewhon’), Ex-Voto plots an engaging and coherent musical journey through dark soundscapes peppered with vital instrumental melodies, the sum of which could be a haunting yet exhilarating soundtrack to accompany the apocalyptic visions of a maladjusted world.
Now we know what the press release says, does the resultant album live up to the written word?
Eleven tracks make up the album with much of the work inspired by Victorian novelist Samuel Butler and his work of the same name: Ex-Voto. I am not familiar with either author or his work and, therefore, can only review this work on how I react to what I hear. ‘End Signs’ begins with a dark low rumble before the beat kicks in shortly followed by the horn of Rory Simmons, which plays a repeating phrase across the track. The drumming is hypnotic and there are well placed interjections from guitarist Chris Montague: a good opening number. ‘Przhevalsky’ is inspired by a Russian explorer of the same name. This track is brighter than the opener with upper register electronics. A great groove underpins the track with, again, the horn of Rory Simmons playing strongly over the top which then drops out to allow the undercurrent sound to cut through before the blown melody takes over once more.
‘Sense’ punches in with the drums of Jon Scott before it settles in with an electronic looped sample, which drops out as the horn comes in. The looped sample is a constant irrespective of what is played over it, even when the sound becomes heavy, partially distorted, and then just disappears. ‘Gemstones’ has a punchy angularity to the playing that is rounded out by Rory Simmons’ sound. Chris Montagu gets to show his skills on the guitar on the second half of the track and it is good to hear. ‘Tin Skulls’ has an almost choral quality to its opening bars but then the beat comes in with the flugelhorn and what first sounded like it might be a ballad becomes something else. This is the most melodic of the tracks so far with a terrific blend of guitar, horn, and drums.
There is a cinematic quality to ‘Heksen Romance’, which is driven by the powerful playing of drummer Jon Scott. There is a fascinating use of electronics on this track that sound choir like and give the piece an added shade of colour. ‘Siler Woods Pt. 1’ has a rock-solid beat from Jon Scott along with a jazz/rock fusion sound from Chris Montagu on guitar while Rory plays his own sound over the top: layers of sound whose tonal variations blend to good effect.’Cellarius Shores’ has the most jazz like quality to it in terms of the trumpet sound from Rory Simmons but the guitar of Chris Montagu brings in the rock edged sound that reminds the listener that this is not a straight ahead jazz album.
‘Natural 93’ has a relatively calm opening with Rory leading on the melody while Jon Scott lays down the beat alongside the use of the pulse like electronics. This is the most accessible of the tracks so far and leads nicely on to the penultimate track ‘Amongst the Machines’. The tone from Rory Simmons on this number is sumptuous, warm and has a wonderful full sound quality to it and for that reason alone makes this the standout track on the album for me. ‘Siler Woods Pt. 2’ brings this album to a close and opens with Chris Montagu playing what comes across as playing snatches of sound that are loosely held together by the repeating phrase that plays beneath the guitar. The track does not develop and ends suddenly, which left me wondering where it might have gone.
Had I just read the notes that were sent me regarding this album with its mention of “noisy industrial samples” and “glitching samples and synths” I may have rejected the offer of the chance to review Ex Voto. Had I done so I would have gone against the strapline to my own blog: “Jazz is an open-ended music designed for open minds.” This is an album that defies genre categorization, it is cinematic in scope, ambient in sound; it is well constructed and well played. There will be those that say it is not jazz but that wonderful sound produced by Rory Simmons tells you that jazz has found another musical partner to join forces with, what you want to call it is up to you.
Ex Voto is released by Whirlwind Records and can be purchased via Bandcamp from 22nd October, 2021
Rory Simmons – trumpet/flugelhorn, electronics/synths; Chris Montague – electric guitar, acoustic guitar; Jon Scott – drums
1. End Signs. 2. Przhevalsky. 3. Sense. 4. Gemstones. 5. Tin Skulls. 6. Heksen Romance. 7. Siler Woods Pt1. 8. Cellarius Shores. 9. Natural 93. 10. Amongst the Machines. 11. Siler Woods Pt2