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Witch 'n' Monk
Witch 'n' Monk Richard Foster , June 1st, 2020 08:40

With Seb Rochford on the sticks and John Zorn at the desk, Witch 'n' Monk's eponymous new album on Tzadik is an itchy, uncompromising affair, finds Richard Foster

The sheer intensity of the music on Witch ’n’ Monk’s eponymous second release begs the question, how precisely should we actually digest sounds such as this? From the opening scrapes and squeaks of the first track, the relentlessly itchy ‘Escarbando’, the listener is plunged headlong into a strange world that is equal parts phonetic radio play and cosmic jam. If I can proffer any listening tips then mark my words, headphones are not recommended. Getting too close too early, or listening to it in one sitting risks a sandblasting. Witch ’n’ Monk needs and demands space, both physical and emotional.

After a while, the record’s quixotic magic begins to take hold. Like a tightly packed gift that only reveals its beauty over time, ‘Escarbando’ and its cousins need your patience in the unwrapping. Things open up after a few plays; with Nicolas Stoker’s drumming on this opening number adding a great deal of intuition in the rhythms, allowing a mutation into a sort of pop song even if the last bars come on like a Penderecki piece.

The second track, ‘Coal Mine’, this time with Seb Rochford on the sticks, will probably be the moment when you decide to stick with this record or move on. Especially around the five minute mark, when the track mutates into some kind of demented rave in a Kinshasa street. It simply refuses to walk to heel; disappearing into whatever sonic scree it can rummage in. Like Ariadne in the Minotaur's maze, the listener could feel like they are fighting an unequal battle. There are seven minutes of wildly contrasting sounds to negotiate. There’s one lyric here that the listener will immediately empathise with. “As the boundaries are always changing / How can you know what’s true?” Well, indeed.

I’m not sure what the brief was for for the duo, maybe they thought, fuck it, let’s hole ourselves up in the studio and try to make anything, all at once. And get John Zorn in on the act as executive producer. For doing that they should be congratulated. I think it must take some guts to make a record as uncompromising as this.

Be warned, flute is everywhere on Witch ’n’ Monk, notably on ‘The Gathering’, which could be setting the opening scenes in some children’s horror movie. Even the vocals turn into a different kind of wind instrument at times; the vocals on ‘Coal Mine’ at one point sound like a set of mutant trumpets are shouting at you. But there is a lot in this album to frug along to. ‘Self’ could be a space pop track - before it disappears to do something else. The opener ‘Escarbando’ may allow one or two memory bubbles to float up from Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s Tychozorente. And ‘Pagan’s Storm and the Sea Ballad’ is a very strange thing; ghostly folk that channels Studio G. This fourth track, incidentally, is the first breathing point on the LP and boy, you should take it.

These constant turnarounds in pace, texture and melody can make the listener queasy, especially during those first five tracks. Though some cuts like ‘Outchant’ could be nods to Maximum Joy or Rip Rig + Panic. And ‘The Cage’ (with Gideon Carmel) is perhaps the most successful exercise in framing the duo’s determination to use music as a barometer for their moods, in what could pass as a conventional pop song structure. It’s a clever piece; a bastardised take on a palm court orchestra doing a spot of tango for the elderly residents taking tea, only for it to gradually unravel on the floor in front of everyone, biting wool and pulling strings. The dismembered feel of the vocal also reminds me of those whacked-out radio plays the writer Georges Perec made back in the 1970s for West German radio. Again a demented, dreamlike spirit is the guiding force.

Challenging music for challenging times, then. In fact Witch ’n’ Monk is such a strange, and overwhelming record, you feel a lot of what is being said remains uncovered; akin to a forest undergrowth that you walk on but don’t really connect with, unless you stop and look.