Monster Magnet probably needs no introduction to anyone who has paid any degree of attention to the alternative rock scene over the last 25 years or more. The band has always been unashamedly and unapologetically rockist in their approach. Largely ignoring scenes such as grunge as they have come and gone, Monster Magnet have managed to pump out album after album of classic heavy rock, and they continue to play to huge audiences. Somehow they have always stood out from the crowd of rock revivalists and “stoner” bands. Whilst the music of many of these retro bands so often feels tired and trite when compared to the 60s or 70s bands they try to copy, they always exuded a special kind of conviction, authenticity and raw power that sets them apart. Maybe this has something to do with (singer, guitar player and only original member) Dave Wyndorf having been born in 1956 and so having actually lived through the 60s and 70s. Either way, the music has always felt just as legitimate and classy as records by Motörhead or Deep Purple.
So, here we see the band come full circle. A Better Dystopia is their 11th full-length release, and it is a covers album. Instead of opting to produce versions of well-known classic songs, Wyndorf and co have opted for what the press release calls “a delightfully psychotic selection of proto-metal and late-era psych songs [featuring] wonderfully obscure song choices”. The latter is certainly true. Sure, the average rock fan might be aware of Hawkwind and The Pretty Things, but how many have heard of Poo-Bah, Josephus, Table Scraps, The Cave Men, or Morgen? Most listeners, then, are likely to go into this album hearing most of these songs for the first time.
The record opens up with Wyndorf reciting a mind-bending monologue from DJ Dave Diamond, an early champion of the psychedelic rock scene. The scuzzy acid rock riffs build tantalisingly over two minutes, but we never quite reach the climax. That comes with track two. Hawkwind’s “Born to Go” sounds exactly like what you would expect Monster Magnet covering Hawkwind to sound like. It’s a little more aggressive and punchy than the original, but the spirit is very much intact. And the same can largely be said for the rest of this album. Monster Magnet at times delves a little further in 60s psychedelia than they perhaps have before, but they also manage to imbue all of these tracks with their signature approach – crisp, heavy, and tight. They blast through cuts including the delightfully weird “Epitaph for a Head” (JD Blackfoot), the dark psychedelic whirlwind of “Be Forewarned” (The Macabre), “When the Wolf Sits” with its driving grooves and blistering solos, the sitar-endowed “Death” (The Pretty Things), the Stooges-esque “Motorcycle (Straight to Hell)” (Table Scraps), and “Welcome to the Void” with its ultra-catchy hook. Each song retains the essence of the original whilst also sounding unmistakably like Monster Magnet. Wyndorf’s vocals are on form as he subtly adjusts his singing style (and the effect processing) for each song.
A Better Dystopia will have no doubt been a joy to work on, and that sense of playfulness is apparent in these recordings. A solid balance has been struck between making reference to the original 60s production/arrangement tropes and adding a more modern heaviness. If part of the aim is to bring a new audience to these bands, then A Better Dystopia will undoubtedly be successful; even the totally obscure songs here are as strong as any of the classics that we all remember. The album is perhaps less successful, however, as a representation of Monster Magnet’s own unique personality. Yes, they put their stamp on each of these tracks, and Wyndorf certainly sings like he means it, but the band is necessarily pulling the dial back to a mere 10 rather than their usual 11 in order shift the compass of their sound away from metal and more towards garage rock. We also don’t get so much of the straight-faced humour that often lies within Wyndorf’s original lyrics. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the band have taken victorious ownership of these excellent songs.
The cover art (for which I cannot find an artist credit) essentially takes the classic psychedelic album art style and ramps everything up to ridiculous levels. It is gloriously tasteless in its uninhibited embrace of every acid rock trope available, from neon colours to Aleister Crowley. It is so ridiculously over-the-top that it works.
And perhaps that last point about the art also encapsulates what might occasionally be missing from the music itself here. Monster Magnet is a band that can transcend cliché by consciously overdoing every element of their sound, lyrics, and image. They also add subtle humour whilst simultaneously being deadly serious about what they do. All of that is apparent in the cover art here but maybe not so much in the actual music. The slightly more restrained and reverent approach necessitated by the material means A Better Dystopia doesn’t quite hit the same outlandishly euphoric highs that the best of their original work does.
That said, this is a very solid and expertly performed selection of songs that many listeners would otherwise never hear. Monster Magnet still outclass most of their peers even when they playing someone else’s songs. People wanting to trace the roots of the metal and hard rock back to some of its less-well-remembered roots could find a lot worse places to start than with A Better Dystopia.
A Better Dystopia is out now on vinyl, CD, and digital download formats via Napalm Records. Order it here: https://monstermagnetofficial.bandcamp.com/album/a-better-dystopia
7 / 10