As everybody knows, South By Southwest has gotten huge. Overwhelmingly so, if you let it. Every hour, from about noon to two a.m., across a swath of Austin from Cicon in the East Side barrio through downtown and then way down South Congress, there are probably several hundred bands playing. It’s all too easy to get lost in the shuffle, to spend more time walking to and from shows and waiting in lines to actually have an amazing music experience.
I know, because it’s happened to me in the past. Not this year. Monotonix took care of that.
Monotonix is an Israeli trio, purveyors of balls-to-the-wall blues-derived MC-5 / Stooges punk-metal, tinged by occasional hints of Zeppelin. And yes, there are lots of band that fit that general description. But exactly none of them can bring it live the way Monotonix does.
If there was a spectrum on which every shade of chaos was ranked hierarchically, you would have to peg a Monotonix show somewhere to the left of total, complete and utter mayhem. Maybe you could call it demented pandemonium. Supposedly they are banned from half the live venues in Israel, at one place because a couple became so aroused that the man started to give his girlfriend oral sex. At a Tennessee show on their current tour, a man is said to have purposely set himself on fire.
I saw them first in an enclosed-on-three-sides backyard at a funky east Austin venue called the Austin Typewriter Museum. You could smell the band before you could see ‘em – as soon as their van doors opened a wave of body odor permeated the entire yard. The drummer, a dead ringer for Borat with a gold dookie chain around his neck, proceeded to set up his badly battered, minimal kit in the dusty ground in front of the stage. Yonatan Gat, the guitarist, looks like Bob Dylan circa the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in his Fender (literally held together with electrical tape) to an amp, which was also on the ground in front of the stage. And that was it for set-up.
Each of the three sets I saw started like this: the band waves the crowd in towards them, and the drummer wails a basic beat on the snare, kick-drum, and ride cymbal. The guitarist erupts with a deranged, bluesy riff. And then hirsute singer Ami Shalev (who looks like a cross between Doug Henning and old-school Ted Nugent) comes flying in from the wings screaming and wailing.
The drummer in this band is a glutton for punishment, as Shalev generally starts the show by dousing him with fluids, or as at two of the shows I caught, dumping a full can of nasty South By Southwest garbage over his head.
And then it gets weird. There are absolutely no barriers between crowd and band. Shalev climbs whatever structures or other high vantage points are in the vicinity – could be a building or a tree, whatever – and hollers words in either English or Hebrew or maybe just primal screams. Or maybe he’s rolling around in the dirt, keeping time on the bass drum with his forehead. Or maybe he’s flying around in the crowd, knocking beers over or head-butting more garbage cans or blowing snot out of his nose. And the thing about it is, the pandemonium never ceases, never so much as lets up for a second, throughout. Often the show closes with the crowd spontaneously picking up the bass drum, with the drummer perched on top of it, still banging away on his remaining kit, and carrying him over their heads to the van. At another Ami ate it right in front of me on hard-packed gravel while I was taking a picture of him. At a third, he was raving to the crowd about his dick and then did something I couldn’t see that caused a couple of hundred people to simultaneously groan aloud.
These guys did six of these shows in one day on Saturday. They have to be simultaneously the most physically fit and mentally deranged band I have ever seen, and already I have seen them three times.
At the last show I saw them at, I had an epiphany. This was another one at the Austin Typewriter Museum. This time the crowd was bigger, and I was a little further from the band. All I could see was a cloud of dust, flying beer, and a ring of people with demented looks, eagerly watching what was going in between them. Seeing a Monotonix show, I thought to myself, is less like going to see any other band play than it is like going to a cockfight. More specifically, one in which the rooster your whole life is riding on is engaged.
I shared the thought with veteran English rock journalist Sylvie Simmons, a lady who is on first-name basis with people like Robert (Plant) and Ozzy Osbourne, and she told me she’d already written that same exact idea in her notebook.
Usually, at this point in the article I feel like kind of an ass, because I have to write something about how it’s a pity they are not coming to Houston any time soon. Well, folks, I don’t have to do that this time around, because Monotonix is playing at the Mink tonight.
And one other of the bands on that same bill reminded me of the facts that there is still more of a Houston connection, a deeper one. It was former Press Nightfly columnist and Fatal Flying Guilloteens guitarist Brian McManus who tipped me off about Monotonix. He also told me that after a show last year in his new hometown of Philadelphia, Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat approached McManus and asked him if he was in fact, Brian McManus. “I am,” McManus said.
“And you were in the band Fatal Flying Guilloteens?” asked Gat.
“I was,” answered McManus.
“I just wanted to tell you then,” replied Gat, “that our singer saw your band a couple of years ago, and it was at that show that he decided to start a band.”
So tonight you can see if the apprentice has surpassed his master, Fatal Flying Guilloteens singer Shawn Adolph.
And lest you think I’m just looking out for an old buddy / former co-worker of mine, here are what some of my compatriots in the trade had to say about Monotonix:
"If you didn’t enjoy yourself at this one, kids, you’re deeply fucked." - S.F Weekly
"Since the times that Fugazi, Unwound, and Les Savy Fav have left me speechless from their sonic force and physical fearlessness, I have not been as floored by a band as I was watching this bass-less trio unfold." - Seattle Weekly
And Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune picked up on the buzz-phrase from this year’s South By: “Monetize the chaos.” In other words, how can the old-line fat-cat big cigar boardroom types still make mad cash from the completely melted-down music industry?
Kot’s answer? Who cares, when bands like Monotonix are still out there. “Best of all was the Israeli trio Monotonix, who shunned their stage setup to play most of their set in the middle of the 100 or so people fortunate enough to see them. The band ripped out a crude, distorted brand of hard rock derived from the MC5. But the recordings don't do them justice. By the end of their 40-minute set, the beer-soaked band was levitating, born aloft by dozens of grasping hands, the drummer still slamming away on a kick drum held by the audience. That's the type of chaos that no one in their right mind would try to monetize.”
Nor could it be, because like I said, these shows are something beyond chaos. In fact, they are the perfect band for our time, the soundtrack and visual representation of a world that seems to be slipping out of control. – John Nova Lomax
Check out video of the band's first performance below: