Appreciating the Progress-Rock of From Monument To Masses, Which Plays Its Last Show Saturday

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From Monument To Masses, one of the Bay Area's most distinctive and accomplished instrumental rock groups, is calling it quits after nine-odd years and one last show this Saturday at the Great American Music Hall. Anton Patzner over at Spinning Platters scooped us on the short-essay-of-prehumous-appreciation idea, but what's the blogosphere for if you can't piggyback? FMTM deserve more than one eulogy anyway.

As a band, Monument made a few splashes in a scene that never figured out how to brand it: post-rock, math-rock, prog-rock. The band borrowed liberally from all those sounds, and occasionally from the spirit of hip-hop, and heavy metal, and worldwide protest music, but it never stayed in one place for long. Together, FMTM's two proper albums, 2003's The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Simple Steps (from which, hilariously, Amazon has subtracted 66 steps) and last year's On Little Known Frequencies, show the poles between which the group operated: jagged and lush, complex and visceral, furious and measured. The trio -- guitarist Matthew Solberg, bassist Sergio Robledo-Maderazo, and drummer Francis Choung -- knew how to become more than the sum of its parts when necessary, but also when to summon the immediacy of three young people whose only way of reacting to the climate of the world -- or in any case, their best way -- was through music. 


As citizens and community members -- as "cultural workers," as Solberg put it once -- the three of them had their eyes on a different prize altogether. They remained cagey about their politics in interviews and press materials, but it wasn't hard to tell where they were coming from. ("We read a lot of Marx," Robledo-Maderazo admitted to me with a shrug last year, as though revealing a long-cherished secret.) Almost every FMTM song drew on vocal samples from speeches and movies and field recordings, painting the global condition at once more and less subtly than post-rock progenitors Godspeed You Black Emperor! used to do it. Neat work, for a band that never recorded more than a paragraph of lyrics, to be able to say that the fourth instrument was, literally, the voice of the people.

Those samples took center stage, naturally, but the band had its own quiet personality, too: in Solberg's serialistic finger tapping, Robledo-Maderazo's prowling bass, Choung's busily virtuosic drum lines. They had a sense of humor, even, at least as far as song titles like "Beyond God and Elvis" or "Clinical Features of Rock Trauma" go toward constituting one. Best of all, their music wasn't so much a vehicle for their political ideas as a reaction to the things that shaped them: they played in earnest, searching dialogue with the demagogues and the freedom fighters who peopled their tracks. The Impossible Leap begins with the most evocative 9/11 song ever written without lyrics, then considers different aspects of the American present (foreign policy, mostly) from the widest angle imaginable. Little Known Frequencies, though it lost some edge in its expansive orchestrations, took the same approach to a new set of questions: education, land rights, war. The band wasn't looking for answers, just some kind of progress.

And now, the members are ditching the current strategy  of working as a unit. "Despite the gains we made over the years as a band, [our] trajectory had too many obstacles for us to overcome," says Solberg, who has already begun writing and playing with other local musicians. "We need to focus our energy on making winnable gains. What I hope we've done is inspired a few folks to learn how their place in society is defined, and to get involved in working for progress. More than anything, I hope we've inspired other artists to embrace political art and to incorporate the voice of the People into their work, to make it more powerful."

In that light, San Francisco really does lose one of its best, most representative acts -- even though Choung has lived in New York for the last few years, making the band for all intents and purposes bicoastal. "I have to believe that the Bay Area had an effect on the political consciousness of each of us, due to the history here and the legacy still taking place today," Solberg says. "It's just a great place to see people putting new ideas into practice."

He recalls the band's worst show here, at the now-obsolete Fray Day storytelling festival. "Oh my god, it was horrendously apparent that we didn't belong there.  It remained a running joke for a long time -- like if we ever wound up playing a show where the stage was weird, the sound was bad, and the crowd was neither genre- nor age-appropriate, we would get Fray Day flashbacks."

The best? "Ask me again after the show this Saturday."

Read Solberg's official breakup announcement here, and see the band off in style on Saturday at the Great American Music Hall with opening acts Silian Rail and Judgement Day.

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