Album Review: Hairless Monk — ‘Monolith’

Even before the great quarantine of 2020 started, Jacob Willenborg, under the guise of Hairless Monk, was being highly productive. Since 2015 he has performed, recorded, mixed and mastered five EPs all while maintaining a full-time job and drumming for Cedar Rapids punk band FTA.

May of 2020 saw the release of Monolith, an ambitious 40-minute prog-metal concept album. I call it a concept album, though it’s not declared such on Hairless Monk’s Bandcamp page, as Willenborg is able to weave together a compelling psychic narrative in seven songs, with no use of lyrics or monologues.

Monolith has the feel of something conceived, story boarded and then plotted out, all before the recording began. Album opener, “Sarsen Stones,” begins with the sound of distant chanting emanating from subdued atmospherics, lulling the listener into a menacing dream, until they are suddenly rushed on by the guitars crashing in with their emotive, anthemic-like marching. Before the song is over the guitars have faded back into the fog they had emerged from, as if nothing more than a hallucination.

Just as things have calmed, “These High Cliffs” brings the clamor of double-kick drums and dual guitars. The resulting sound is reminiscent of a ship battered by waves against jagged rocks, helpless to free itself from the tide. The energy of “…Cliffs” is sustained through the next few tracks, finally reaching a brief calm on “Ellora.”

What becomes apparent very early on is the range of influences Hairless Monk threads together throughout the cycle of tracks. Track three, the nearly nine-minute “Monolith,” brings to mind the metal epics of The Sword’s debut album, Age of Winters, and early Kyuss, where the guitars narrate a fantastic lore using cyclical phrasing accented with the crash of high hats and bludgeoned drums. Songs “Out of the Sky” and later, “Into the Earth” use a slow patience and riffage invoke the cosmic horror of Sleep and Elder’s doom/stoner operas (think Holy Mountain or Reflections of a Floating World).

To show he’s not shy with the range of his influences, album closer “Tooth of Time,” with is energetic and (dare I say) bouncy rhythm, has more in common with the Pixies than most of the prog metal of the six previous tracks. It is the most infectious track on the record.

Throughout the entire run time, Willenborg is able to take these influences and weave together a story. Whatever the imaginary plot it invokes in your mind, Monolith stays true to the world it sonically builds. As we go forward in these uncertain times, a lot of people might find themselves tackling various at-home projects to keep sane. Anyone who’s setting out to write and record their own do-it-yourself prog/doom masterpiece should give Hairless Monk’s Monolith a deep listen and take notes.

We might be under self-isolation well into the year 2021, so now’s the time to grab your guitars, bring the drums out of the garage and get to recording. At the very least, Hairless Monk has left a blueprint for a bedroom magnum opus of the stoner metal kind.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 285.

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