At its peak in the mid-’80s, Northern California’s Camper Van Beethoven was a strikingly precocious ensemble unable (despite regular releases) to contain the disparate enthusiasms of its members. The Monks of Doom was one of several side projects to emerge, giving a forum to bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, drummer Chris Pedersen and Ophelias guitarist David Immerglück (who later joined Camper). The band’s first two longplayers — mildly psychedelic improvisational guitar rock, with occasional forays into jazzy ethnicity (the more song-oriented Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company is a big improvement; the first is mostly instrumental and has a less-distinct personality) — appeared on Camper’s label, only to vanish in the miasma of distributor Rough Trade’s demise.
The quartet next landed on the roster of Chapel Hill’s ill-fated Baited Breath/Moist. Meridian does a fair job of rendering the schisms that had developed within Camper. Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel brings a whimsical collection of sounds to the mix, David Lowery displays a strong country/pop songwriter’s sense and Krummenacher — in many ways the principal Monk — is revealed as the band’s serious intellectual. Meridian is a curious flavor of indie prog-rock — imagine if the Grateful Dead had drifted in that direction in the early ’70s. The songs don’t reveal flashy instrumental skills, but are quite ambitious, almost theatrical, in construction.
Seattle’s C/Z Records got the consolation prize in the Monks’ post-Rough Trade sweepstakes, a five-song EP entitled The Insect God. Although it draws direct inspiration from Edward Gorey’s book of the same title (“an admonitory tale of temptation, hapless greed, abduction and unspeakable ritualistic practices”), The Insect God is in many ways a lighter, not to mention more concise, outing. It also details the band’s frames of reference, with covers of Syd Barrett’s “Let’s Split” and Frank Zappa’s “Who Are the Brain Police?” for clues.
Made for yet another label, IRS (which reissued the first two albums for good measure), Forgery audibly benefits from a bigger recording budget, and the Zappa influence is consequently more apparent. It’s a tight and cleanly played record but, as with the Monks’ entire oeuvre, the literate songs and sounds come too often from the head and too rarely from the heart. Or lower.