Portland band finally cuts loose Menomena has always taken a cut-and-paste approach to songwriting. The trio’s 2004 debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, juxtaposed stilted crescendos of piano, guitar and saxophone with silence. The melodies of 2007’s Friend and Foe were a bit more bombastic—drums pounding, horns blasting—though the remaining loops still entered and exited without warning, cutting out before they could air out.
I have to give Menomena credit. When they emerged, they built all their songs using their own software. The approach worked really well, resulting in a wildly creative debut LP, I Am the Fun Blame Monster. But the band refused to let the process become the point, and seven years later, on their third album (not counting Under an Hour), you have to listen carefully to even detect the modular, mix-and-match method the band still employs in the studio.
Menomena are the quintessential 00s band. Children of the digital age, the three write songs using a Digital Looping Recorder, or Deeler, a software program that member Brent Knopf wrote in college. The Portland experimental rockers use it to capture an improvised riff or beat, which then gets looped. Another member improvises a new idea overtop the loop, also captured, and then someone adds something else.
Four albums in, and Menomena are still making music on Deeler – a software programme that band member Brent Knopf wrote and submitted for his college coursework. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a tried and tested method in itself, because it’s handy to know what you’re working with before you get started on a project. But in the cutthroat world of artrock, don’t bands at this stage in their career need to force themselves out of their comfort zone a little, or risk getting too settled in the same familiar territory they’ve spent the last decade exploring? Apparently not.
“Nothing holds up a process like an indispensable band member being both a perfectionist and a control freak. Especially when your band features three of these types. And we certainly haven't gotten any more agreeable in our old age – quite the opposite.” — Danny Seim, MenomenaA couple months after their third album Friend And Foe gained them some notoriety for creative strides in CD packaging, I got see Menomena do their thing on stage and was more or less awestruck with what three guys can accomplish.
You know, Menomena probably doesn’t get the respect they deserve. The band is fresh off three critically acclaimed albums in a row, but their fourth, Mines, has been almost invisible in terms of pre-hype. But maybe that’s what the band wants; their songs have always been instrumentally labyrinthine and lyrically byzantine, and that’s something you’d expect out of a collective of musicians who thrive on isolation.
It’s a pretty common story in the land of indie-rock these days: A much-hyped and much-adored band releases a breakthrough album after toiling in anonymity for awhile, and then for years mounting upon years, silence. No follow-up, and very little word as to when one will arrive. The fanbase begins to get nervous, and the consensus is that, after all this time, the product will either be an unparalleled masterpiece or a dismal failure, the latter perhaps resulting from a collective band meltdown.
No description of Menomena’s distinct clamor, even the good ones, feels like it completely captures the band. You could describe the Portland three-piece as experimental rock (they did make their own sampling machine), but that ignores their traditional classic-rock songwriting. You could say they are like a ‘70s art band (or TV on the Radio), but that overlooks how great these guys are with a hook.
Drifting between order and disarray, Menomena’s fourth album is like an exercise in controlled chaos. While Menomena are still working in layers of fractured harmony, Mines feels like one of their more focused efforts to date. Given the density of the songs here, reining themselves in couldn’t have been a small feat, and the album probably owes a lot to its relatively downtempo feeling.
This time Menomena take aim for the heart as well as the head. Chris Lo 2010 Menomena are a tricky proposition. With three albums already under the Portland three-piece’s collective belt, their music is still mislabelled as often as their name is mispronounced (it rhymes with “phenomena”). Although nominally covered by the nebulous indie tag, Menomena’s sound often encompasses progressive rock, freeform jazz and ambient electronica in a single stride.
Menomena's made quite the case for the nonconcept concept album. Across three LPs, the last being 2007's glittering Friend and Foe, the Portland, Ore., trio's penchant for looping has come down to the micro level. You're never exactly sure where the sound came from, and just as quickly it's replaced with something even less obvious. On their fourth album, a bigger picture finally comes into focus.