The cover depicts a house seemingly on fire, but the bright blue tones, the window frames’ religious symbolism and the peppering of matter throughout the sky all lend a cold, haunting veneer. It’s a fitting image for music that in phases is comforting and intelligible but also ventures far beyond the reaches of the light.
The confusingly named mndrmooaa is the third LP of Madrid-based monodrama, a jazz trio of highly accomplished musicians who assume drums, keys and sax duties predominantly, though all are multi-instrumentalists. The alluring, wide-open landscapes they construct are bathed in a sepia glow initially, abetted by warm production, soft drum tones and the fuzzy synth pads and bass lines that underpin many passages. We are satiated by expansive vistas and the warmth on our skin, eased despite our unfamiliar surroundings. The drums shuffle along, rarely sticking to 4/4 but always at ease in their humble intricacy; the sax delivers short lines of melody simple yet so numerous that the memory of where we’ve been quickly fades. Their players are sophisticates in more than one sense of the word: musically cultured and yet misleading. (This is why the title is confusing ~ it’s a simple anagram that conveys complexity disguising simplicity; these musicians are the opposite.)
Then the mood shifts. Amid such expansive terrain, we realise we no longer know our bearing or destination. Though bereft of obvious threats, the very unknown that had once promised adventure now delivers anxiety. In second track “Everything In Its Wrong Place” (take that, Thom Yorke!), bouncy rhythms and chime-like Rhodes soon break out into increasingly frenetic drum fills and ominous sax lines, while a growling synth creeps in to spread its unease. A couple of tracks later, “The Hunt” ends with a dramatic crescendo of shrill sax soloing, pounding drums and choral textures, the jazz aesthetic shredded like the song’s subject.
Just as we start acclimating to these shifts in mood, the record’s dynamics and timbre start shifting alike. At the more mainstream end, the infectious and tightly constructed “Golden Age of the Eye” and the more sedate, drawn-out “Big Hope” sound more like the jazz-infused post-rock of Tortoise, but with a few synth tones that call to mind a videogame OST. At the least mainstream is the centrepiece, two-part “Statement”, whose “Part 1” midsection is an intermission of restrained piano and percussive improvisation bookended by cathartic, off-kilter stabs against a thrashing cymbal ~ the most rewarding minute of the whole record.
But throughout these shifting sands the music retains a sense of playfulness. The trio revel in leading us to the outer reaches of the known, pushing the boundaries of mapped terrain as they do the musical genres whose conventions they merely smile benignly at. And it all feels instinctive rather than performative ~ even in that most indulgent of musical device: the solo. The one-two of “There Will Be Blood” (another tangential Radiohead reference?) and “Inner Dance” find the trio in their most flowing state, the sax and drums in the former lurching wildly while the synth looks on with a tense grimace; the latter a lengthier and more languorous affair whose thrashing cymbals seem at odds with the gentle fuzz of the bass. It feels simultaneously improvised and through-composed, jazz and classical disciplines eyeing each other up amorously.
It is that feeling of love that ultimately prevails. Throughout a captivating 77 minutes our sense of vulnerability ebbs and flows, but it isn’t with malicious intent that we have been so led astray. The trio are merely parents testing their brood to venture beyond their place of comfort, to discover a new experience and, more importantly, inner strength. Our fear has been driven by love. And at the record’s close, we return to comfort and warmth with “Pahoehoe” ~ the Hawaiian word for the type of soft lava that flows, radiating warmth and never ceasing. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)