Monks On Fire isn't easy to listen to. I don't mean that in a bad way; rather, the band's musical prowess and unconventional compositions have gained a steady following of people who like their rock 'n' roll a little on the weird side. It's just that Monks on Fire isn't conveniently classifiable, or packaged cutely for mass consumption. And that's just the way the band members like it.
The experimental-rock outfit (classifications are irresistible, though, aren't they?) has used its diverse interests and influences as a main focus. Its compositions range from hallucinatory, delay-washed trances à la Pink Floyd, to biting, angular guitar riffs and wailing vocals, to Zappa-esque keyboard transitions, often all in the same song.
"I've heard people that appreciate it and I've heard people say it's too over the top," says drummer Dylan Foley. "I appreciate both sides."
Foley and guitarist Michael Richter discuss the band while hanging out at The Abbey, the two-story South Hills house Foley shares with keyboard player Ed Wreiszen. It also serves as group headquarters and practice space. A glance around the house shows where some of the band's creative juice comes from. Music equipment is strewn about, books ranging from fantasy novels to presidential autobiographies line the downstairs shelves, and records spill out from the shelves beneath the turntable: Simon and Garfunkel, Jethro Tull, Metallica.
Two years ago, Foley, Wreiszen and bassist Ross Peterson were searching for a new musical direction following the dissolution of their rock band At Home In the Cosmos. They had some songs lined up, but finding the right guitarist on Craigslist proved frustrating.
"There's some seriously interesting people rocking out on Craigslist," Foley says with a laugh. "It's like riding the Greyhound bus. One guy literally said, 'I don't do chords.'"
Foley eventually found Richter through mutual friends, and Monks on Fire had found its missing component. Its first gig was a three-song set at the Top Hat as part of a benefit concert with Bellatrix, and since then the band has stayed busy around Missoula, gaining traction in a local music scene its members are quick to praise. The band's shows often incorporate other forms of art, such as live painting, fire poi or hula-hooping, in attempts to bridge the gap between the various forms of artistic expression rampant in Missoula.
Monks on Fire tries to create a different set every night it plays, and that doesn't mean filling time with jam band noodling. A controlled chaos occurs on stagea synergy between Foley's violently precise drum assault, Peterson's exploratory bass lines, Richter's guitar soundscapes and Wreiszen's textural melodies. It's all been carefully thought out and methodically reworked back at The Abbey. The band approaches each song diplomatically, and records each of its practices in an effort to rework their performances to perfection.
"Exposing yourself to yourself is hard sometimes," says Richter about listening back to those recordings. "When you're first working on a song and you hear it, it's glory and failure all at once."
Last year, Monks on Fire won KBGA College Radio's KBandGA competition, which granted the band recording time in the local House of Watts studio. The result is an EP that the band plans to release to the public in early summer, starting as a pay-what-you-want digital download. The members are transforming The Abbey basement into a home studio, and plan to upload a steady stream of self-produced singles online.
Monks on Fire's members are focused on writing new material, pushing themselves to constantly create and delivering quality, unusual music following their own definition and their own rules. It may be "too heavy for the classic rock crowd and too prog for the indie crowd," as Foley says he heard someone complain after a show, but the freedom to create whatever kind of music they want fuels Monks On Fire's passion.
"Music is kind of an end in itself if it's done right," Richter says. "The reward is intrinsic to the experience."
Monks on Fire, Tidal Horn, Modality and Monster W/ 21 Faces play the Palace Thu., March 7, at 9 PM. Free.