Last year, a fantastic collaborative effort produced ‘Monocyte’ the graphic novel, written by Kasra Ghanbari with artwork from Menton3 (Menton John Matthews III) and, from a total immersion in the world of the book, an album was formed under the same name by Saltillo, Menton3’s music moniker. After his 2011 album Ganglion, he chose to pursue artwork instead of music but, after living for months in the world he had created, an externalised version of his inner landscape, he felt compelled to write the soundtrack of that world. For Menton, the experience was so real that the world needed both visual and audible representations. The graphic novel and the album can be listened to together for a full immersion into a post-apocalyptic world devoid of death and change, or enjoyed on their own.
As Saltillo, Menton is proficient on the cello, viola, violin, guitar, drums, piano, bass and banjo, as well an expert in a slew of electronics and a master audio sampler; it’s no wonder Saltillo is often cited as a band rather than an artist, considering how remarkable it is for such complex music to be accomplished by one man. His music is most frequently described as a combination of trip hop and neo-classical, incorporating orchestral elements with samples and electronica synths, although there are also clear Goth influences. The synthesised, echoing female vocals on If Wishes Were Catholics and Veil are reminiscent of early 2000 gothic metal bands like Evanescence and Lacuna Coil, and are provided by Sarah Matthews, the artist’s wife and a deputy Coroner in Chicago , Illinois with whom he worked in a previous music project called Sunday Munich. Saltillo is one of those musicians who was never classically trained, but has managed to learn and master many instruments to such a high quality that the casual listener could believe he had been.
He is also an incredible physical artist, working in mostly oil paint but also in pen and ink, and digital. Throughout his life Menton has studied alchemy, symbols and the occult, giving him an artistic style which is drenched in symbolism. The idea of Monocyte began with a love of superheroes and the need to create something new; Menton listed all of the traits he would choose in a superhero and that person turned out to be Monocyte, an immortal necromancer. He said that he felt that Monocyte had been inside him for years and now he was finally real, which is how his creativity works; taking dream material and turning it into stories. The world of the graphic novel is so deep and detailed that the events of Monocyte are just a period in time, and thousands of years before and after exist in the minds of its creators – it just so happens that this is a pivotal crux in time.
Monocyte is the story of an endless battle between two immortal races. The Olignostics have come about through a convergence of political power and technology, thriving on the technological boom and spiritual collapse at the beginning of the 21st century. After attaining and harnessing Absolute Zero, they created a conduit which would continually recycle energy and keep them alive indefinitely. Humans became complacent, ignoring the signs of their power structures being destroyed. The world was split into members of the Oligarchy, who alone were connected to the conduit, and the human slaves that they owned; the power of each individual was dependent on the amount of human slaves they own, displayed as a number on their shoulder.
“I started writing down all of these things I had invented, along with the idea of what would be a superhero that I liked as an adult and who I am now, and within about fifteen minutes the basic construct of “Monocyte” was sitting in front of me. To be honest it was like a semi metaphysical experience, it was as if “Monocyte” had existed in my own internal architecture for years, I felt at that moment as if I already knew “Monocyte,” like seeing an old friend.” Menton3
The Antedeluvians, a secret collective of creatures obeying an ancient code who are primarily seekers of knowledge, are much older than the Olignostics. Their leader Al-Khidr was the first of these immortals which drew psychic energy from unknowing humans. When the Olignostics rose to power, the Antedeluvians gathered together and went underground, taking humans with them to feed off psychically; these humans were much better off than many others. For countless years the two races warred using weapon-less human slaves which would just be brought back, no lives lost and no victory on either side. In a world without death, Azrael (Death himself) has found himself useless and summons Monocyte, whose search for death has lead him to an eternal sleep, and promises him true death if he can destroy the immortality power sources.
The album begins with slow, mystic-sounding strings and echoed fragments of speech before bursting into a cacophony of electronic noises and prophetic speech. ABEO is only two and a half minutes and already manages to conjure the feel of a mystical post-apocalyptic land when Proxy kicks in with an industrial trip-hop vibe. The combination of classical music and poetry taken from the graphic novel over synths swells into a dark and dramatic song which ebbs and flows and seamlessly drops back into the piano-heavy If Wishes Were Catholics. The haunting female vocals of Sarah Matthews make this song more easily accessible than many on the album, although it is still masterfully assembled with amazing attention to detail evident in the many layers of music, and Mrs Matthews voice adds pure human emotion to the music.
The Right of Action feels like a soulful dirge, a steady procession toward hopelessness which echoes the graphic novels theme of immortality as a tiring curse against humanity. The next track, They Do It All The Same, begins like a religious chant but falls into slow, trippy club music with the feel of Eastern religious music mystery; it’s clear that Saltillo is influenced by the iconography which religion holds in music as well as in semiotics. Gatekeepers is much more experimental again with a variety of synthesised noises being brought together like an orchestra while a British voice that sounds crackled as though on vinyl talks slowly throughout, first quoting Euripides’ The Medea, then Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 – a lament of the artist’s struggle between hope and despair – before finishing with a passage from Henry VI about the pointlessness of war. This battle which has gone on forever has helped no one and ripped any true life from the earth. I Hate You is more frantic, bringing in sharp strings, canned laughter as on a TV show, and what sounds like Saltillo’s trusty banjo – not something you’d usually expect to hear in either neo-classical or trip hop music, but it works. The juxtaposition of American sitcom laughter and selections of Bible passages combine to create a feeling of unease, conjuring visions of the Columbine Massacre and the Westboro Baptist Church, and this song leaves you feeling breathless in parts before falling back to incorporate elements of previous songs before moving on again.
“Monocyte is like Deadwood being sodomized by HR Giger in a cathedral, as narrated by Tom Waits.” Ben Templesmith
Death’s speech from the book accompanies gentle violins for the beginning of Forced Visions; this song is a lot lighter than many others on the album, offering a brief respite from tension without allowing the listener to fall out of the very specific feel that this album has. It steadily moves on into Hollow – which invokes both the sounds of a 18th century ballroom and a modern industrial band – and The Locus Priory which builds up the tension yet again, still maintaining the consistent feeling of overwhelming sadness and human suffering. Snippets of earlier songs are weaved in to give the album a thematic feel which is much more akin to the score of a film than a collection of songs.
A female vocalist joins the music in Veil, and it’s unclear whether this is Sarah Matthews again or someone else, as the credits only assign the vocals on If Wishes Were Catholics to her. This song starts quite differently from all the others, with an early 20th century blues vibe with just a hint of a Vincent Price horror film, but by the time the singing is brought in it becomes slightly more normal, a soulful vocal performance over the crashing and grinding of synthetic noises. Religious chanting and the lamentations of an old woman (drawn again from The Medea by Euripidies) draw the listener into a false sense of security at the beginning of To Kill A King, as it soon bursts into heavy, rhythmic drumming like tribal dance music. Full of a positive energy and more peace than has been felt for this entire album, the song drains out to the crackled matron’s voice and lets the listener slowly slip away with a real sense of completion – a feeling that echoes the emotions of an immortal who has finally been given the eternal sleep they craved.
One of the main themes of the graphic novel is that of choice – in this world, set thousands of years in the future, humankind are cattle through their own laziness and complacency. Between the stories of immortals finding each other across the millennia, there are a number of small stories drawn by guest artists, concerning the human side of the struggle; it shows them rolling in the mud like pigs, apathetic to the controlled state they have allowed themselves to slip into. As Al-Khadir says: “Anyone may look around and see the problems in this world. Anyone can follow the easy path of complacency, watching the wrongs take flight, but to have the courage to back your convictions and ask the question…how would you have it be?”
It’s clear that every word of the poetry, every page of illustration, every sample used in the album has been pored over with tremendous detail. The graphic novel is a combination of high art, storytelling and poetry, pushing the limits of the “comic book”. A craving for experimental music, a willingness to listen to mostly instrumental songs and an appreciation for mood, style and technical greatness over catchiness and marketability are necessary for enjoying the album. Kasra Ghanbari’s writing is stilted, jarring and poetic and Menton3’s artwork is exquisite, though definitely for mature readers
Listen to the album trailer for Saltillo’s album Monocyte right here!
Image © Jenny Mugridge