Monks of Mellonwah – Afraid to Die
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released
If you read my review of Monks of Mellonwah’s first 2013 EP, the promising, three-song disc that was Ghost Stories, you’ll recall that I praised the band for their down-to-earth, straight ahead rock music and for their ability to call back fondly to an era and genre that I’ve never personally been terribly fond of: 1990s alternative rock. When I first reviewed the Ghost Stories EP, I was under the impression that it contained the first three songs from a forthcoming full-length record of the same name. While Ghost Stories DID include the first three songs from a full-length effort, the title of that record won’t be Ghost Stories, but Turn the People, and it will be released in three separate parts of the course of a year. The second piece of the record, packaged as another EP called Afraid to Die, arrived this month, and it continues the promise of the first disc quite nicely.
Where I felt as if Ghost Stories was an exploration of grunge and of the Seattle alternative rock scene in general, Afraid to Die sees the band exploring their admitted arena rock influences for seriously. That much is evident from the first track, the titular “Afraid to Die,” which teases bombastic horn hits for a song that wouldn’t sound out of a place as a theme song for the next James Bond movie. Similarly, the gang vocal chorus and pyrotechnic guitar solo at the end of “Downfall” connects the band’s notable RIYL influences—Red Hot Chili Peppers or Incubus from a vocal perspective and Muse on the instrumental front—into an addicting cocktail of radio-ready rock ‘n’ roll.
One of the best things about Monks of Mellonwah on Ghost Stories was their taste for dark and atmospheric melodies that recalled the songwriting structures of classic rock songs. That quality persists on Afraid to Die, specifically with the spiraling centerpiece cut that is “Alive for a Minute.” With a grungy bassline, an eerily distorted vocal sample, and an innovative use of a staccato string arrangement, the sparse and unsettling musical bed of “Alive for a Minute” gives frontman Vikram Kaushik the space he needs to deliver arguably his finest vocal performance to date. Kaushik’s soulful vocal, punctuated by lyrics that examine mortality and a building palette of sonic grace, carries the song to its electric conclusion.
At the four minute mark, the rest of the band finally gets to let loose, with drummer Josh Baissari delivering a hurricane of percussion and Joe de la Hoyde’s electric guitar line leaping headfirst into the cyclone, his rapidfire pace doubled and strengthened by the song’s fantastic string section. In my review of Ghost Stories, I more or less wrote off Monks of Mellonwah’s supposed Led Zeppelin influence, arguing that they were far more similar to modern southern rock bands like the Black Keys or the Raconteurs. But on “Alive for a Minute,” with a wall of disparate instruments joining together to add to the song’s breakneck intensity, I think the Zeppelin comparison is fully justified: this track sounds like the work of four guys who grew up with “Kashmir” consistently playing on repeat.
Kaushik challenges the vocal bar set on “Alive for a Minute” with Afraid to Die’s closing track, a pensive acoustic ballad called “I Belong to You.” With little more than a Travis picked acoustic guitar for his accompaniment, Kaushik delicately gives this EP its farewell lullaby. The instrumentation builds throughout (is that a Jethro Tull-esque flute floating through the second verse?) but the song is best as a bare-bones display for Kaushik’s sheer vocal prowess. He owns the song, singing with the sort of blues or gospel chops that so easily put modern pop pretenders like Bruno Mars to shame. If this is the song that Monks of Mellonwah use to close EP number two, I can only imagine what the grand finale for the entire project will sound like.
Typically, I’m not an EP guy, but the way Monks of Mellonwah have decided to unveil their new project is something that I find quite interesting. Sure, it’s a disconnected way of offering a listening experience, especially when a full-length album as the endgame. But by kicking things off with the straight ahead rock of Ghost Stories and then taking a detour into darker, softer, and more mysterious territory with Afraid to Die, Monks of Mellonwah have instilled in me a level of anticipation for the last three or four songs of this project that I think would be comparatively difficult to generate within a single disc album heard all at once. Breaking up a record into EPs won’t work for every artist—too often, the emotional ebb and flow of a 10 or 12-song project can only exist when taken in as one uniform work of art—but for Monks and Mellonwah, who have woven mini-album experiences into each EP released so far, it might just be the ideal arrangement.