Shoegaze is alive and well in the Czech Republic – and MANON MEURT are one of the genre’s most stylish exponents. CzechHarmonies assesses their mesmeric debut, head tilted towards the floor in rapt oblivion…
OK – strictly speaking, MANON MEURT’s debut is not a new release: it came out in April last year. But here at CzechHarmonies we’re making up for lost time, having only started blogging on Czech music last November, thereby missing out on several notable 2014 releases. And this heady, epic six-track offering is as splendid a place to start as any.
Manon Meurt are a four-piece band in thrall to the pedal-laden vibes of 1990s British shoegaze, but who have succeeded in transcending their influences to ferment a fresh and contemporary sound of their own. They hail from a small town called Rakovník that discreetly nestles amongst remote hills stretching west of Prague, and, if you turn your imagination up to eleven, their music could almost be the soundtrack to the atmospheric train journey from deepest, mistiest rural Bohemia into the bright lights and deafening noise of the Czech capital. One of their tracks is even called ‘Glowing Cityscape’.
Sometimes you can hear a well-oiled 100-tonne locomotive coasting regally over a criss-cross of points. Sometimes the train inches ominously up an incline through fog like a wily predator, apprehensive about being exposed by imminent sunlight. Whatever the environment, this album takes you on a perfectly paced trajectory – and, dynamically speaking, Manon Meurt know when to apply the brakes, and when to go full throttle. And the album takes only seconds to work up a head of steam…
1 – To Forget.
Two wiry, wispy, broken chords on guitar…and already we’re flying: the Manon Meurt wall of sound (or one variant thereof) kicks in almost instantaneously. Káťa Elznicová’s and Vojtěch Pejša’s immaculate My-Bloody-Valentine-style dual vocals delicately surf a lean, elongated melody, as Síma Kuchárová’s molten bass guitar strains insistently at the leash without ever quite escaping. Drummer Jirka Bendl then resets the mood by going into train-over-points mode while guitars silently regroup and rebuild the momentum.
2 – Glowing Cityscape.
The album’s most brazenly rhythm-driven track is as glittering an advert for the band’s co-producer Šmity (also the bass player in Luno) as it is for Manon Meurt themselves. The energised, thumping, clock-like drums are crystal-clear in the mix without being too clinical, muscular without being overpowering – and, peeping through the cracks in the percussive grid, strands of guitar drone, moan, mutate and jostle. It is unusual for a three-chord song with such an uncomplicated vocal tune (this time, only Káťa Elznicová is singing) to sound so creatively ebullient. But this does.
3 – ’94
This is the album’s sacred inner sanctum, a majestically unfolding supernova, and a masterclass in how to slowly ratchet up the tension, then gently extinguish it. A distant jangle of muted broken chords slowly builds and builds, drops back to base, rebuilds and rebuilds, the drums kick in, the tension steps up another level, and just when you think there’s no level left to step up to, it finds that too – before ebbing away into the ether. Elznicová’s vocal melody is so simple and endlessly repeated it should in theory get boring, but in practice draws you in like a moth to the flame. A true masterpiece.
4 – Until You Can
It takes some nerve to follow ”94′ with an equally slow offering, but somehow ‘Until You Can’ is not overshadowed by its predecessor. It noodles and throbs imperceptibly, seemingly indefinitely, then abruptly swings and swishes into life like a foreboding monster languidly but authoritatively marking out its territory, all cymbals, flanged distortion and distilled, echoey vocals. It may have the same tempo as ”94′, but the end result could hardly be more different.
5 – In these Eyes
The penultimate track sees the band upping the tempo and breathing new life into the old loud/quiet/loud/quiet song structure, with Elznicová regularly re-adjusting her vocal intensity accordingly. Drums undulate industriously like a passenger express weaving in and out of tunnels, while Pejša’s guitar alternates between searing chords and faintly traced semi-melodies. ‘In These Eyes’ is buttressed by probably the simplest bassline in the world (no fancy histrionics required), though a subtle change in the chord sequence towards the end adds a delicate twist.
6 – Blue Bird
This album’s physical release was vinyl only, and if Manon Meurt were aiming to end both sides of the disc with a slow motion explosion, they have succeeded spectacularly. ‘Blue Bird’ matches ”94′ for cathartic drama, though here the ratcheted tension takes hold more suddenly. My one reservation, initially, was that perhaps this final track peaked too early, meaning that the subsequent bluster outweighed the emotional impact towards the close…but even this solitary doubt is already receding with repeated listens.
When I first heard this album I was hit right between the eyes on every track. But I also wondered if the repetitive element to the music might leave me bored within a few listens. That this has not happened, is down to several factors: the judicious use of a smorgasbord of effects pedals without relying too much on any one effect; inventive percussive rhythms; periodic embellishments and ornamentations that are not always noticeable first time, but lie in wait to be discovered; and, last but not least, Káťa Elznicová’s intoxicatingly addictive vocals, which suggest even more emotional riches yet to be tapped on future albums.
When a band self-identifies as shoegaze, there is always a tendency for the listener to play ‘spot the 90s influences’. You might well detect My Bloody Valentine in there (whom Manon Meurt supported when they played Prague’s Divadlo Archa in June 2013), as well as hints of early Lush, Ride, Slowdive and Pale Saints. But importantly, by far the biggest and most identifiable ingredient is…Manon Meurt themselves. My only real criticism of their debut album is that it is a mere half an hour long, leaving me gagging for more as ‘Blue Bird’ dies away and spirals down into the abyss.
Which, of course, is ultimately a compliment.