Interview by Michael McCarthy
Recently, I was introduced to the music of Monuments, a genre-defying band who are often mislabeled as various genres and subgenres, as you’re about to read below. Their music was like a sonic equivalent of a rich, complex roast of coffee… Sometimes I daydream about Starbucks using their Italian roast to make their espresso instead of their usual “espresso roast” because it always tastes amazing when I make it with said roast at home and I know it’d come out even better if it was made by one of their fine-tuned machines. To my ears, their music is like what that divine espresso would taste like. It’s so great that you can’t even imagine it. If there’s one thing I can say about it that the band would likely agree with its that it’s bold. To me, I hear their music and it’s like witnessing a living animal, constantly challenging itself and becoming stronger, more deadly. OK, so I’m getting carried away with metaphors, but hopefully you get the idea; their music is wildly imaginative. Sometimes you can tell when bands are being lazy and just going through the motions. Secretly, I think over half of the metal bands out there today are doing this. Monuments, however, is not. And if for no other reason, that is why you should read this interview with their spectacular vocalist Chris Barretto.
Your new album is called The Amanuensis. It’s my understanding that an amanuensis is someone who writes down what some else dictates. Or who copies something previously written by someone else. In what way do you mean it as your album title? Why did you pick this title?
CB: Well it’s no secret by now that we, as a band, are all fans of the movie Cloud Atlas. Within the story, there is such a character that is referred to as an Amanuensis. It’s a lovely word. It carries a sort of sophistication and has a beautiful ring to it. After tossing a couple of other names around, we found that this one was the most appropriate. In context to the story of the record, I Imagine the “Amanuensis” being the listener, experientially dictating the story that is taking place.
Is The Amanuensis a concept album? If so, what is it about? (Assuming you didn’t just answer this above.)
CB: I suppose so. From my understanding, “Concept record” usually means that there is some sort of theme that spans the entirety of the record. So that being said, i guess it is a concept record, according to those rules. To me, it’s just my attempt at writing a story. Something that I would like to read even if there wasn’t any music involved.
The story is about the journey of a boy named Sam and his female counter-part, Sara. The two names themselves are a play on the word “Samsara, which is a word used to represent the “cyclical nature of life” in a few Eastern religions. The only thing that I’ve written into this tale that borrows from the “Samsara Cycle” is, literally, the cycle itself. It’s like a loop frozen in time, forever destined to repeat (or so it seems) and cycle on itself. Other than that, the album is just a fictitious story that I’ve created to supply all the lyrical content. It follows sam from song to song on a journey to fulfill his “destiny” and, in the end, become who he is meant to be. Sara is his guardian angel of sorts, and comes to Sam at particular points in the story to help him recognize his path to becoming who he truly is.
The story is quite in depth and I’m actually in the process of turning it into a short story, at the very least, so that people might be able to get a little deeper into the story, if they so desire.
On your Facebook page you describe the band as progressive metal / experimental groove, which both make sense to me, having heard your albums. But I came across something on a site that referred to your band’s genre as djent, which I’d never heard of before. According to Wiki “Djent is a style of heavy metal music that developed as a spinoff of traditional progressive metal.The word “djent” is an onomatopoeia for the distinctive high-gain, distorted palm-muted guitar sound employed by bands like Meshuggah. The term was initially coined by their lead guitarist, Fredrik Thordendal. Typically, the word is used to refer to music that makes use of this sound, to the sound itself, or to the scene that revolves around it.”
Would you agree that Monuments is a djent band then? If so, would you agree with the definition above or would you describe it differently?
CB: You might be one of the first people who has never heard the word “Djent” haha! And I must say, I am quite grateful to hear that.
Actually, given the definition that you’ve cited above, we wouldn’t be a Djent band. Not by those standards anyway. Browne uses a low gain tone and down picks everything in an intensely aggressive fashion, which creates his sound. He’s certainly refined it over the years and, truly, the only “djent” bit comes from throwing the 5th on top of a power chord, which I’ve only ever heard him use once on the song “blue sky thinking”. Other than that, he’s truly just a groove wizard. He writes more like a “metal Funk” player than anything else, in my opinion. Not to mention, he is truly one of the founders of this modern era of metal. To say that he’s a “djent player” just does him no justice at all. Browne is an innovator in every sense of the word, expanding on the “metal language” that was laid down by the big musicians before us.
Experimental Groove is the closest definition that I would ever feel comfortable using, to be honest. To me, as well as the rest of the guys, it’s just music with an awesome bounce, a feel good sensibility, and a driving force that keeps the tunes moving forward. People are always going to call things they way they want to. “BeBop” was no different in the 40’s and 50’s, as the term is used as a way for the mass populace to understand the sound as a whole. It’s a word that reduces all of the collective sounds into its most simplified form. Unfortunately, some minds are just to small to comprehend the larger sounds and smaller details that are used by such innovators. So that’s where the mass lumping of bands come in. Combine that with the sort “pandora’s box” effect, where a single sound spawns a million copies, and you also have a greater potential for confusion. It’s all a bit long for something that should be so simple.
What do you think about djent being considered a genre or subgenre? Do you think there are enough artists doing that sound to merit their own subgenre?
CB: Like i said before, it’s just a way to reduce an overall sound into to it’s simplest form so it can be understood on a larger scale. There are certainly enough “copies” to warrant a sub-genre i suppose, albeit i think it’s just of a bunch…”a swing and a miss” type music. But then, it doesn’t really matter what i say. It’s happening anyway.
Being a unique band like yours, I would think that having djent defined so specifically would be a bad thing because other artists might come along and decide they want to be djent and just start adhering to the formula as defined by Wiki. Would you agree?
CB: Yea, pretty much. Also like i said before, it’s that proverbial Pandora’s Box that has been swung wide open for this new generation that has spawned more contempt and hatred within in metal than ever before, I think. Even more-so than nu-metal, if that’s even possible. The best example I can think of that’s somewhat similar is when John Coltrane came along and started playing all that “out” and “free” stuff that everyone was into in the 60’s. At least when Coltrane did it, he played from a place of heavy knowledge and pure intent. The not-as-experienced mind took it as an excuse to play literally whatever they wanted and had the audacity to call it “free music”. It spawned a generation of pure bullshit just because people were too lazy to do the actual homework that was not only behind the avant-guard style of playing, but music in general. I believe we have found ourselves in similar times, as far as metal music goes.
Bottom line: If you want to be a serious musician, take some time to educate yourself. Learn your mind-brain before you start wanting to play that “feel good” open note for 93285672389406786387 measures with some screaming on top of it. Please. For all of us.
What were some of your earliest influences that had a profound effect on your music and style?
CB: Well my very first influences were the likes of Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins as well as classical composers, like Mussorgsky, Debussy, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky. What got into metal, however, were bands like Slayer, Korn, Deftones, Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit (yep, I said it), Slipknot, Lamb of God, Pantera, Sound Garden and others. One guy that has been across my entire lifespan, though, is Michael jackson. Listened to him as a kid and he has profoundly impacted my writing as a vocalist. Freddy Mercury (who came later in my life) has also changed the way I approach vocal writing. Learning and borrowing from the greats was one of the best things I came to understand in my life.
In addition to being the band’s vocalist, you also play saxophone on the album. How old were you when you first started playing the sax? Did you take lessons as a kid?
CB: That is correct. I started playing when i was 11 years old in the school band. I took private lessons and eventually went on to study further in a performance oriented high school and then the music conservatory known as The Manhattan School of Music.
I have to say, that I put down the horn for a while after my father passed away. He was the main reason I became a musician in the first place so the instrument, for me, shall always be connected with him. Thankfully, in past couple of years. I’ve slowly made my way back. I wish to return to school at some point to further my studies.
How long have you been singing? Have you ever taken vocal lessons?
CB: Well, I’ve been trying to sing since i was about 14 haha. I just started screaming and trying to be like the guys i looked up to as a kid. It’s only been in the past 7 that I’ve started taking my singing more seriously. I signed up for lessons with the famous Melissa cross and I was also dating a girl around the same time that had training in Opera, so i learned a few things there. I’m no where near some of the guys that are out there today, but I do my best to take my craft seriously.
Do you do the growled vocals on the album as well as the clean vocals or just the clean vocals? If someone else does the growled vocals, who does it?
CB: I do all the vocals on the album. Everything. There is not a single vocal utterance that is not my own.
How does the songwriting process work for your band; who generally writes what?
CB: Up until this point, a lot of the responsibility has fallen on Browne. When Gnosis was written, it was mainly Browne who wrote ALL of the music and the band had a considerable amount of involvement in the vocal writing as well. In fact, between browne’s composing and the bands vocal contributions, it’s safe to say that Gnosis was 75% written by the group, if not more.
For “The Amanuensis”, things this time around were definitely different. Browne wrote a fair bit of the music, but Olly contributed 2 exquisite chorus riffs for “Saga City” and “Destroyer”. Swanny had a bigger hand in arrangement and bass slapping department this time and Mike arranged all his own drum parts. As for me, I wrote all of my vocal parts, save for one backing line in “The Alchemist” during the bridge. The rest, vocally, is the product of my own penmanship.
Are you inspired more by reality or fiction? If reality, are you more inspired by history or the present?
CB: I would say both inspire me equally. I am fascinated by the past, intrigued by the present, and am usually in awe of the world of imagination that lies in the space between both “worlds”. The ability to take past, present, and even potential future events, and mix them up with the fantastic elements of the mind is what makes life so interesting for me. If i was forced to choose though, I would say my mind often dwells in imagination and with the Sphinx.
In terms of the lyrics, which I can only understand so much of, due to a hearing problem, it sounds like some of the topics might be in the black metal vein or at least in the death metal vein. If you had to assign a genre to your lyrics specifically, what would it be?
CB: Definitely not those which you have listed above! I don’t quite know what that even means, to be honest. My lyrics are merely an attempt to tell a story that is based imagination, beliefs, and personal/human history. Genre doesn’t really hold weight in this instance.
How long have you been with Monuments? I found a profile of the band on a site called got-djent.com and it mentioned quite a few line-up changes, but it didn’t indicate when you joined the band. (Oddly, it didn’t mention you at all.)
CB: Well then. I have been with the band for year only, at this point.
Where you in any bands prior to Monuments?
CB: Yes. I have another band back in NYC called Ever Forthright that I still work with currently. In the past, my other projects have included Friend For A Foe, Haunted Shores, Periphery, and the band that got me on the track to where I am today, Lamps Burning.
To my ears, Gnosis sounds a bit heavier than The Amanuensis with The Amanuensis sounding much more progressive (which I really like about it). Would you agree? If not, how would you compare the albums?
CB: Maybe? I used to listen to Gnosis a lot but not anymore since we’ve done this record. At the risk of sounding vain and self absorbed, I think ” The Amanuensis” sounds a bit more cohesive and, that word that bands love to use, mature. I prefer the way Browne plays on this record and I appreciate the reach for more diversity this time around. I did consciously choose to sing as much as possible on this record, because that’s what I felt like doing. That might have a lot to do with how the “heaviness” thing is perceived. But there are some fat heavy riffs on this record that I think crush his previous work. I think Browne and the guys feel the same way as well.
What are your plans for touring behind the new album?
CB: The plan is to tour as much as possible and bring the music to as many old and new eras as we humanly can. We want the world. So we’re gonna do what we have to do to get there!
What do you think of to summon up the emotions you project on stage? How much is theatrics?
CB: Sometimes I actually say a little prayer before I go on stage! But it’s not a religious thing. It’s actually a phrase that Wonder Woman says before she goes into battle on the show “Justice League”. She says “Hera, give me strength”, and then she proceeds to kick major ass. I’ve used it a few times and I swear it works. Once I’m on stage though, life seems to slip away and I become who I actually am. It’s like for 45 minutes, I get to just be myself. The world makes way more sense to me when I’m on stage. I use that and a little bit theatrics to my advantage. People love a good show and I’m always trying to find new ways to give them one, even if i have to be a bit dramatic at times.
What were some of the day jobs you had before becoming a professional musician?
CB: I worked at music rehearsal spot for a little bit, I was a bartender, and then I was a dating coach for a minute! Odd jobs to say the least, but all had a social element in common that helped me interact with people on a daily basis.
Now, a few questions from our vault of random questions:
What’s your favorite genre of movies?
CB: To answer the question directly, Sci-Fi, Adventure, Horror, Drama, Thrillers…The real answer is anything that has a brilliant story has my attention. It doesn’t even have to be that good of a film. If my imagination can relate to the story, I’m in.
Rambo or Rocky?
CB: Rocky all the way. My favorite being Rocky 6! The best motivational speech in a movie for me, hands down. The scene where he’s giving that speech to his son.. tears!
What’s your favorite movie soundtrack?
CB: not a movie, but my favorite soundtrack is to Battlestar Galactica. The music is fucking AMAZING!