Having finally stepped out from the shadow of Roman numerals and single-track full-length albums, the French Monolithe has returned with their fifth LP, Epsilon Aurigae. I considered Monolithe IV a slight regression from the monumental Monolithe III, and it seems the decision taken to step away from the established formula (which had already been more-or-less perfected by III) was a smart one: Epsilon Aurigae is a more nuanced release capitalizing on their best doom qualities while developing a few of its own.
A natural but large step, Epsilon Aurigae has a much more overt use of synths and a sparing use of orchestral components to flesh out their ever-more refined compositions. It goes a long way to distinguishing this from prior work without undermining the skull-crushing heaviness now synonymous with Sylvain Bégot (the creative force behind the band). The synths in “TMA-0” are particularly expressive and not just facilitators of melody as they may have been before. The strings prevalent in “Everlasting Sentry” serve a similar purpose, and the introduction of the horns about nine and a half minutes in makes for a surprisingly epic transitional period into an ambient breakdown.
Monolithe‘s willingness to to incorporate these different sounds, extending to a number of guitar solos featuring cleaner and lighter tones than they’ve used previously, periodically refreshes the record. The aforementioned ambient passage serves as a brilliant tool to heighten anticipation before the final climactic crescendo and the solo preceding this at the 5:30 mark of the same track is highly melancholic, successfully conveying emotion rather than just offering respite from the obscenely thick doom. The relative digestibility of Epsilon Aurigae is aided by the fact that this record is split into three tracks, unlike the fifty-minute behemoths of previous albums.
Distinct from Monolithe‘s prior discography though this may be, it still comes with some of the same drawbacks. Despite the splitting down of the album, these fifteen-minute tracks can still overcome your higher faculties of concentration if preoccupied otherwise. The use of repetitive and droning music is critical to the development of atmosphere but not the most demanding (which is probably why I spent two paragraphs discussing the non-droning parts of the album). This is where releases subsequent to III have fallen short of that lofty bar, since that album was consummately captivating throughout.
The excellent production is also worth noting. Bégot’s journey into the world of audio dynamics (partially thanks to the gentle prod / violent coercion of Metal-Fi’s Alex) continues here, and it’s delightfully refreshing to hear thick, heavy, down-tuned doom metal which hasn’t been compressed to within an inch of its life. Engineer Andrew Guillotin deserves credit for balancing the massive guitar tone (heavy like an African elephant riding a blue whale) with reasonable bass prominence and for lending a healthy, organic feel to the drums. The monotony and fatigue which plagues releases of a similar style is assuaged by the respectable dynamic range. It’s not crushed, but crushing – an important distinction.
Epsilon Aurigae is a step-up from IV but doesn’t reach the terrifying, oppressive (dare I say… monolithic?) heights of III. That said, it’s as different and as accessible as Monolithe has ever been so here’s a great place to climb aboard the doom train if their formidable prior releases were too much for your frail brains.