Album Review: Mad Monks – The Dark Retreat

Mad Monks

Mad Monks

The Dark Retreat

Mention “concept album” and many will picture the recorded excess of bands like The Who, Rush, Styx, Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP — the list is endless. Sometimes it’s done well, but the need to squeeze in an overwrought story oftentimes compromises the overall work. Iowa City band Mad Monks shies from calling their latest and final album, The Dark Retreat, a concept album and instead choose to call it “thematic.” They add that “all tracks flow into each other creating a near-seamless piece” using the idea of the Buddhist preparation for death to tell the story of our hero, the Helionaut, and his journey to the sun.

Whatever you call it, the album is an elaborately layered and carefully crafted fusion of progressive rock and heavy metal. What makes this thematic album so listenable, as a single work, is its emphasis on sonic cohesion rather than bumbling storylines. I found that since the songs flow from one to the next, the best way to consume the album in its 63-minute journey is all at once, while paging through the accompanying artwork created by Claire Thoele.

The Dark Retreat draws heavily from the book of prog rock and as a fan of the genre, I found Mad Monks’ ability to incorporate complex structures of rhythm and chord scales interesting and satisfying. The album opener “Aphelion” is a delicious slide and finger-picked bluesy delight that recalls “In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin. The finishing swirl of distortion establishes the transition to the chugging and heroically bombastic “Helionauts” which leads the listener to the aural journey ahead — and what a journey it is — spanning acoustic interludes, carpet bombing drums, fuzzy and distorted guitars and bass solos.

The Earth gathers its occupants in an embrace so strong that nothing but a violent explosion can break the bonds of gravity and release a voyager to the lonely darkness of outer space and further to the unknown. The Mad Monks have captured this in the epic journey of the Helionaut in The Dark Retreat.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 178

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.