I’m old enough to remember a time when cover art was incredibly important. A time before the Interweb, where walking into a record store, the first thing you might know about an artist would be the impression received from the cover art. Opportunities for listening to a release were often limited, and it wasn’t unusual to buy an album without ever having heard a note. Over the years, I have bought many albums based upon their cover art. While it is true that you shouldn’t judge a book (or an album) by its cover, it’s sometimes worth taking that risk. Monoliths, by Australian band Turtle Skull, would have seen me taking that risk. The cover art is gorgeous, evocative and emotive. I would have taken the chance back in the day, and I would have been rewarded – for the music within is also gorgeous, evocative and emotive.
Gorgeous. Yes, I really did call the music of a drone and doom band gorgeous. For a start, by their own declaration, Turtle Skull play flower doom – and peace and beauty are part of the design. Whatever adjective you add to ‘doom’ still creates too narrow a view, though. Turtle Skull defy such easy categorisation, with psychedelic, ambient and Krautrock elements all part of the mix. I have in the past railed against the use of the term “world music”, and I would like to offer Turtle Skull as a representation of what “world music” should entail: not the vaguely xenophobic and racist grouping of any music not familiar or normal to Western ears; but rather music of the world, the earth. Geological music. Monolithic music. Monoliths are often conflated in common parlance with megaliths, but monoliths are natural geological formations. Of the world, not its inhabitants. Turtle Skull’s music is of the world. It is monolithic.
In geology, monoliths are generally exposed by erosion, leaving behind the hardest and most solid material. There are at least half a dozen notable monoliths in Turtle Skull’s native Australia, with the most well known being Uluru. Like many monoliths around the world, Uluru is sacred to the indigenous people of the land. And that spiritual sense pervades the music of Turtle Skull, evident from the outset, and the almost chant-like opening number, Leaves. The way the vocals float and hover over much heavier instrumentation is reminiscent of Peach/Suns of the Tundra.
Lead single Rabbit follows. Like the album itself, the Rabbit single is accompanied by some terrific artwork, quite sparse and minimalist, but nevertheless captivating and beautiful. Again, the music matches. The “run, rabbit, run” line is engaging in its simplicity, and created an ear worm that stuck with me for days. My only complaint about Rabbit is how short it is. Its four minutes seem to fly by in less than two, and I could do with it being at least eight minutes!
One of the aspects of Turtle Skull I really enjoy are the vocals. If flower doom is a thing, then the vocals are the flower. With three of the five piece providing vocals, there are plenty of opportunities for three part harmonies, and Turtle Skull are more than happy to take them. They particularly shine on Heartless Machine, and then, just to add a little more zing, this song also adds some incredible vocal effects, to enhance the machine-like quality. Along with plentiful washes of synths, and some nice changes in tempo, this is a highlight from the album for me.
Next up is the latest single, Why Do You Ask? After three slower-burning tracks, this song offers an almost surprising change of pace. While still retaining the psychedelic doom elements, this is almost an indie rocker in the vein of the Flying Nun bands from across the ditch. Having grown up on Flying Nun, it comes as no surprise that I love this song. Definitely a favourite for me, and a brilliant choice of single. This is as radio-friendly as Turtle Skull get on Monolith, and hopefully it gets airplay. Like Rabbit, there’s plenty of ear worm potential here. Also, that final minute! How good is that change of tempo? Love. This. Song.
Almost answering any criticism of Why Do You Ask? as a single is Who Cares What You Think? Who cares, indeed? And for that matter, who cares what I think? And yet, here I am, still going on. And this song goes on, too. That could easily be seen as a criticism, but it’s definitely not how I intend it. The repetitive riff and rhythm are a fuzzy delight, sweeping the listener up and taking them for a ride, before depositing them down and bathing them in a final minute of audio bliss. That audio bliss continues with Halcyon, which is suitably calm and peaceful. I guess it is intended to work as a (near) instrumental interlude, which accounts for its relatively short length. But once again, this is another track which I could easily have enjoyed if it were twice the length or more.
The introduction to Apple of Your Eye gives the impression this will be a beast, with sounds that would not have been out of place in the ‘90s explosion of music from the Pacific Northwest. However, these are stripped back to reveal a more introspective sound. That said, it could still be from the same time and space. It’s simply more Sunny Day Real Estate than Soundgarden. Apple is probably the most beautiful song on the album (although this will depend entirely on how you judge beauty), and its one of three standout tracks on Monoliths, for me. Again, despite its length (more than six and a half minutes), it’s over far too soon. Like Rabbit, it feels like it’s only half its length, and I wish it were twice its length.
And so we’re left with the final track, The Clock Strikes Forever, which is the longest on the album, so you’d think it would be exactly what I’m looking for. Indeed, I am sure this will be a favourite for many (perhaps most) listeners. And, don’t get me wrong, I really (really) like it. Not a minute is wasted, and it never feels too long. I guess there are just other tracks I would have preferred were given this length of time to run with and/or develop. That said, it really is a perfect closing number, and truly monolithic in stature and sound.
Monoliths is an album perhaps too light and “happy” for lovers of doom and drone, and potentially too heavy for lovers of psychedelic, but for anyone who isn’t a follower of particularly genres, and just enjoys good music for what it is, then I would urge you to give Turtle Skull’s latest a listen. Close your eyes, and drift away on the waves of sound Monoliths provide. I can’t say where you might end up, but I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the journey.
01. Leaves (6:58)
02. Rabbit (4:01)
03. Heartless Machine (6:59)
04. Why Do You Ask? (6:54)
05. Who Cares What You Think? (7:22)
06. Halcyon (4:36)
07. Apple of Your Eye (6:40)
08. The Clock Strikes Forever (11:42)
Total Time – 55:12
Tobia Blefari – Percussion (Congas, Rain Stick, Shaker, Tambourine)
Julian Frese – Bass, Piano, Vocals
Dan Frizza – Synths
Charlie Gradon – Drums, Vocals
Dean McLeod – Guitars, Vocals
Record Label: Art As Catharsis
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 28th August 2020