Monkey Fightin’ Snakes – Broken OFF Switch – Album Review by Jeremy Gladstone
A couple years back, we checked out the versatile rock sounds of Toronto-based Monkey Fightin’ Snakes for the first time from a safe distance on the other side of Canada, back when the studio was in BC and we reviewed their Finish What You Star… record. Flash forward to 2018, they’re back with a brand-new record called Broken OFF Switch and likely be hitting the live-stages all throughout the province this year to support it…and now I’m really just a stone’s throw away here in Ottawa. So I figure it’s their call now – they can either take the time to fill out the paperwork properly & get that restraining order filed fast, or they’re just gonna have to figure out how to deal with me when I show up at one of their shows in 2018. For real though…that’s one of my favorite things about Broken OFF Switch…it really feels like they’ve got a great live-attitude in the spirit of the music on this record and you can hear just how entertaining this would truly be from the stage. We’ve got no reason to doubt Matt Davies and his musical cohorts though…Monkey Fightin’ Snakes sounded impressive before & they do here once again.
If anything, I think you could make a great argument that Broken OFF Switch has this band at its most focused – they’ve created a seriously gripping & entertaining record that makes the most of their talented instrumentation and vibrant rock enthusiasm. You can hear a thread of the blues influence lining the walls of Broken OFF Switch– and in certain track throughout this record, you’ll really hear that come to the surface in the thick of some really wild rhythm & grooves that will have you feelin’ the vibe. But in comparison to the previous record, these cuts from the new record seem like they’ve narrowed the range of how far Monkey Fightin’ Snakes will go in terms of their sound, but with the added benefit of having an album that really felt like the songs belonged in this set together. I mean, I’m not saying Finish What You Star… was all over the place or anything like that, Monkey Fightin’ Snakes still put their own sound out there on display…I’m just saying that Broken OFF Switchseems that much more cohesive. You can call it the refined maturity of Monkey Fightin’ Snakes…you can call it whatever you like really – the fact is that this is likely much closer to that album they’ve been waiting to make all along. The ideas in the music and flow of this record are still strikingly imaginative and every bit as wild as you’d expect from this crew – time and experience has them sounding like this all really fits perfectly.
Straight out of the gate, Matt (Vocals, Guitar), Dave (Bass, Backing Vocals), Rob (Keys, Backing Vocals) and Darren (Drums) come storming out into the record, in a mix of sound that’s like a combination of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, The Black Crowes and just a hint of Dave Grohl in the rasp of the vocals on the opening cut called “Already Too Late.” You hearing what I’m saying? Open a show with this hot mother and see how the crowd in front of the stage erupts in response to this crunchy & meaty blues-rock infused throwdown of hooks and wild ideas. Listen to the gruff, grit & GUMPTION in Matt’s voice! That’s right I said it – GUMPTION! It applies here, look it up for yourself. “Already Too Late” is a brilliant track to open the record; it’s edgy, full of hooks and wild instrumentation that stands out for all the right reasons and never gets close to boring you. Solos from the guitars, fills from the drums…all this stuff is doled out really smartly to give you just enough to want more and never even gets close to any kind of ridiculous moments that serve anything else but the song – the balance of ideas & execution in the performance on “Already Too Late” is a quick confirmation that we are indeed, going to be in for one hell of an adventurous ride through sound via the perspective of Monkey Fightin’ Snakes once again on this brand-new record of theirs.
It’d be impossible not to acknowledge the immediate single-worthy hooks that reveal themselves quickly in “Cool Down” in that vocal flow to the verse that immediately begins the second tune. Excellent use of space in the music here leads to a massively catchy rhythm on “Cool Down” through the verse, giving them plenty of space to expand the sound to give the chorus its own significant impact. Highlight combination of keys and guitar in the solos and instrumentation here – like the TONES MAN – those are just like…I mean c’mon – that’s what ya wanna hear right there is what that is. And you can tell that each of these selections in the guitar solo come along with that expressive guitar FACE that comes with it…you know what I mean? That one where the guitar player is doing his thing and can’t control the fact that the FACE is playing along with it? That guitar face. We all know it, we all love it. Good candidate for a lead-single from the record – I think “Cool Down” is likely one of the tracks from Broken OFF Switch that people will immediately respond to; I know that I did, but that’s because I like awesome stuff. If you like awesome stuff too, you should then apply that in practice and listen to this. LOVE the crunchy chords of this tune and how they break-way to give that space in the verse to really add that punch and definition into the writing…if anything, it’s one of those tracks that gives the chorus a serious run for its money – that verse is undeniably loaded with its own gravitational pull. Credit to this band for continually finding new strengths though – the chorus is built to last, sure to be a crowd favorite and the solos in this song are cooler than cool, taking it from a subtle groove to a monstrous riot in rock awesomeness as it roars to the finish line.
“More Peace Please” is played by Matt on the dobro – and ultimately provides a short, two-minute reprieve before we go diving back into the full-band sound in the track to follow, “When You Take Me Away.” These two tracks are essentially joined at the hip, making “More Peace Please” the insightfully beautiful intro that leads directly into the veins of the energy and rhythm of the riotous rock spirit that fuels “When You Take Me Away.” Highlight moments for Matt as he crushes BIG notes in the vocals and a huge credit to Dave for continuously making those bass-lines reliably strong & groovin’ at the heart of this song. It’s fully because Monkey Fightin’ Snakes has such a depth of talent in the musicianship behind the vocals that when Matt or Rob feel like going for a solo, the rhythm section of Dave & Darren keep the fort locked down tight. In the case of “When You Take Me Away,” it’s Matt that takes the guitar for a solo-ride – and you can really hear just how rock-steady his bandmates are surrounding him, which in turns inspires the best to come out of those moments as a result, just like they do here in the imaginative solo. Darren is absolutely kicking ass here…dude is a seriously capable drummer that finds great ways to really add to the music; he can keep impeccable time throughout the demands of the writing and players surrounding him, but you’ll also really notice that he really increases the depth of sound in the material from Monkey Fightin’ Snakes by really understanding when the music needs more from him supplying it in spades, but also when to roll with the groove & keep that beat strong. Another real highlight solo towards the three-minute mark of “When You Take Me Away” – that was a complete series of notes that perfectly fit the atmosphere of this tune spot-on, serving the structure perfectly for the band to come back into the hooks of the chorus to take this track home with additional BIG moments from Matt on the mic before they exit.
For the most part, that live-attitude these songs have makes any rougher edges relatively unnoticeable, humble or honest when it comes to the music of Monkey Fightin’ Snakes. The most unsure moment I think I might have encountered is in Matt’s vocals at the very beginning of “All Comes Back” – part of me suspects he can hit that first verse more on target than we’re hearing in this recording – but it’s only because I think there might be more potential in this tune than many on the album that I’ve got it this far under the microscope. It’s honestly hard to say…there’s a humble quality in that approach that seemed to really work for me as well…kind of like…the singer for the band Dog’s Eye View and that combination of fragile emotion that had his vocals always sound like he was breaking in half from the inside-out. That’s a weird way to describe it perhaps…point being, I’ve always like that band and in a lot of ways, I still loved the way this whole song came out. Because if we’re talking about this song as a whole, I think they’ve really stumbled into something fabulous on “All Comes Back” – the swinging rock groove that this song possesses is completely charming. Shortly before the three-minute mark, they begin to break this cut down in the most brilliant deconstruction and magical ending I’ve heard to a song in a while now. While I’ve given Matt the gears about the verses – the ideas themselves are still excellent and his performance is so close that it wouldn’t even register with most people if they heard it on its own – it’s only by comparison to how locked right into the moment he can be on the surrounding tunes that you notice. Like, it’s tough when you hear “Miles Of Smiles” right after and hear that bold confidence come roaring into the mic…different style of song completely, but you want that same confidence to go along with the tones of the verse on “All Comes Back” too, because it’s a song that definitely deserves it. From that point on, Matt redeems himself fully with some of his most inventive & sharp hooks in his writing complementing a sincere melody and emotion in his vocals. I will honestly take this song in whatever form they’ll give it to me – it’s without a doubt one of my favorite tracks on Broken OFF Switch. By the time “All Comes Back” hits that first chorus and starts to dial into its ideas, transitioning between various parts that contribute to a real meaty structure and deep tune when it comes right down to it. There is a fantastic multi-dimensional expression that exists in this song from its melancholy verses to the brighter pop-influenced hooks that are guaranteed to stick in your ears. Moments like the breakdown before & around the three-minute mark were SO GOOD – the final minute of this song and the way they deconstruct it nailed it…the audible cherry on top of what’s been a thoroughly satisfying slice of the pie. The ending of this tune might very well be one of my favorite moments on this entire record…it’s loaded with melody and a decisive conclusion rolled into one.
As had been established in the first couple tunes from Broken OFF Switch right from the drop, Monkey Fightin’ Snakes definitely got right into the blues-rock this time around. It’s funny you know…not their decision…the people’s decision; I just watched Chris Stapleton shit the bed for the second consecutive year on Saturday Night Live over the weekend as he tried to combine basic riffage into entertainment and take his countrified sound into more of a blues-rock style. And people eat this guy up? Someone out there please hit me up on Twitter or something and try to explain to me why that is exactly…cause I don’t get it. I hear a song like “Already Too Late,” “Cool Down,” or “Miles Of Smiles” and I think to myself – ‘THAT is exactly what those fans REALLY want out of that sound, they just don’t know it yet.’ One of Monkey Fightin’ Snakes best assets is the fact that they can bring such exceptional musicianship & instrumentation into their music without being boring! Don’t get me wrong…I’m not claiming to be a master of knowledge when it comes to blues-rock – but I like to think that the grey in my beard counts for something at least…I’ve been around…I know what’s truly entertaining when it comes to any genre. That’s not me going on an ego-trip – that’s bands like Monkey Fightin’ Snakes making the stunning qualities that make a difference so easily identifiable on a feel-good tune like “Miles Of Smiles.” First of all…Chris Stapleton, take some damn NOTES here brother – because this is the sound YOU want too – and all your fans deserve to hear you working as hard as Monkey Fightin’ Snakes are. I know, I’m off on a tangent here and a rant against Chris…it’s fresh in my mind, but watch the latest performance on SNL and see if you don’t want to fall asleep one minute in to that first song he plays. Then go LISTEN to the amount of personality that Matt puts into the mic and that the band puts into the music and tell me you wouldn’t rather listen to MFS ALL DAY by comparison…it’s that sound you’re searching for, but better.
Up until this point in the record, an argument could definitely be made that Monkey Fightin’ Snakes have played their cards pretty close to the chest on Broken OFF Switch…and by that, I mean that they’ve played their music fairly ‘straight-ahead’ until now, giving the people plenty of time to dig into their new focused, energetic, meaty blues-rock influenced ideas and sound. Those of us that checked out their last record, Finish What You Star…already know that there are multiple personalities that exist in the music of this band that are likely just dying to come out – and that artistic approach to rock begins to be put into practice with the gloriously rad “DNA-Hole.” This is just a flat-out amazing song, straight-up. As far as a ‘complete’ idea is concerned, this is literally written as tightly as it gets – the words are as brilliantly funny as they are insightfully clever…and as FUN as the pop-influenced energy of this song truly IS, you absolutely have to hand it to “DNA-Hole” for being just as smart as a set of lyrics can get. Because you see…we all ASSUME that cloning ourselves would solve a great many of our problems and reduce our workload…but what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if it became ‘twice as hard’ to be you? That’s the genius proposition that Monkey Fightin’ Snakes makes you consider in this song and the thought-provoking premise that fuels the fun in the lyricism here. I think “DNA-Hole” also creates the beginning of an incredible mid-section of this record, but I also think it gives the band something enormous to consider…and that’s the single-worthy potential of this tune. I think the temptation would be to put this one out there…there’s so much working in its favor from the amazing way the song opens to the melody of the vocals and hooks of the chorus, the insightful lyricism, the highlight banjo & guitar solos…I mean everything is spot-on here and as tightly executed as fun can get in music. Is it a full representation of the sound of Monkey Fightin’ Snakes overall? That’s the part of the debate that will make this argument a tough one…because they COULD put this song out there…and hell, with the right video, it could potentially catch on big for this Canadian band…and as a result, it could be what becomes expected from the fans thereafter, whereas the majority of this album resides in a different set of gears. It’ll be an interesting debate within the band I’m sure…and they’re truly spoiled for choice on this record as to what could be put out there single-wise anyhow, so it’s not like they need to settle that overnight.
Shout-out to Astrid Young & Lilly Mason, who provide perfection through the backing-vocals on several tunes on the record – they takes a real turn in the spotlight on the sound of “Hallelujah It’s Today” with bold tones filling in the background atmosphere of this tune with confident & beautiful notes. MFS as a whole continues to depart on a more artistic approach in the middle of this record – and I think the results are incredibly rewarding to listen to. “Hallelujah It’s Today” is inarguably one of the most unique cuts on the record and different from the rest, but there’s that old-timey saloon-jam feel to this song that makes it feel like it fits comfortably right here with the rest of Broken OFF Switch. I absolutely LOVED the crowd noise you can hear in the background, LOVED the trombone from Dave Stoyles, the piano from Rob is a great complement to the melody and the sweet ideas on guitar are at the heartbeat of this tune. Matt gives an incredibly committed performance in his vocals on “Hallelujah It’s Today” – I think you can hear the roll he’s been on throughout the entire record here; he’s been branching out and taking chances…and I think the further he goes into that well of creativity & inspiration like he has been for “DNA-Hole” and “Hallelujah It’s Today,” the more inspiring the sounds have become to listen to. The theatrical nature of the style they play this cut with, accented with the awesomeness of the trombone, really reaches for an entirely different vibe than any of the rest, but MAN does it work – “Hallelujah It’s Today” is a seriously cool cut that will have you singing praise for Monkey Fightin’ Snakes, no doubt.
Alright…so…you know how people say ‘oh I could listen to so-and-so read the phonebook’ because you love a voice or the interesting sound of someone’s vocal qualities…so much so that they could in theory read something as dull as the freakin’ phonebook and you’d STILL love it. Monkey Fightin’ Snakes pull of a similar trick with “Mrs. Simpson” – like WHEN was the last time you heard a song about a LIBRARIAN and thought it was even half this cool? A great example of this band at their most playful in their rock attitude, experimenting flawlessly with a subject that could have been construed as ordinary, turning it essentially into a gripping rock tale that you’ll wonder if it’s going to turn into a version of The Graduate. There’s certainly a conversation or two that could be had regarding the potential metaphors in this song could point to along the way – and then just as a great story should, “Mrs. Simpson” leaves little doubt left in its conclusion as to what’s been truly going on all along. Excellent drums and pace set by Darren once again, great harmonies from the band and an outstanding lead from Matt on this tune. I’d be interested in what he thinks about his performance on this tune honestly…in its punchiest moments, he sounds bold & 100% ready to conquer…at times throughout the song when the melody flexes like it does on lines like “Mr. Simpson never knew” – you can hear a shaking energy trembling through his veins & voice. I’m just curious as to whether it’s intentional or not…if it was, it’s a brilliant way of communicating the mix of trepidation & excitement that would no doubt come along with the situation.
“The Best You Got” works a thoughtful set of emotions, taking the rock-element up a bit but keeping it low-key in the energy like their own “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” I’ll say this…I think they did the best with what they had here – “The Best You Got” has a real charisma and humble charm to its verse with another highlight performance from Matt on the mic, and the chorus does a decent job of trying to keep up with the standard set. It’s a tough one…the verse is really loaded with hooks, whereas the chorus reverts to a more simplified approach with its one-line lyrics, but adds the additional voices, which I like. So writing wise, it felt like maybe we needed a bit more to follow the stellar beginning that “The Best You Got” starts-out with, but thanks to the way they’ve collectively executed the thickening of the chorus by adding Lilly and Astrid, along with Ed Sculthorpe and Earl Mann to form a giant choir of voices really ended up fitting the song well. Heading to a one-line chorus like that can be a risk unless you add something to it to help it stand out…were “The Best You Got” just left alone to Matt, it might not have been enough – but with the army of voices behind him, they add the strength those key lyrics require.
A lot of this record has left me wondering about just how much Joe Cocker they’ve been listening to over there. Certainly no complaints from me…dude was amazing of course, as we all know. I think you can hear the influence in a lot of the way that Matt approaches the vocals on Broken OFF Switch though – like he’s summoned that same level of confidence and ability to let his voice loose and really go for it. A song like “Sally” has that spirited energy, rhythm & groove of a classic Cocker tune, especially when you consider how well the backing vocals of Lilly & Astrid come into play to support the melody; these are classic moves in rhythm-rock executed perfectly. LISTEN to the way the chorus comes out sounding beautifully powerful, exciting & enthusiastic and just how much this song is begging to be sung along with. Highlight moments from Rob on the keys once again, additional percussion from Aaron Knight in the mix to add depth to this impeccable jam, solid bass-lines from Dave keep the cut moving with a rubbery groove and danceable vibe – “Sally” has that vibrant live-sound that people are always seeking to listen to on a record – that exact magic that an artist like Cocker was able to bring to his albums. You can close your eyes and envision what “Sally” would be like to experience LIVE with as much vivid detail as you could get by actually being there; that ain’t easy to do, but you’ll feel like you’re front-row here.
There are also moments like “Sooner Or Later” that remind me a lot of the ambitious alternative pop-rock melodies that Foo Fighters end up in at times. A lot of that has to do with the guitar tones Matt chooses, his own edge & rasp in his vocals along with that perfect crack & break in the sincerity that echoes the influence. Overall, “Sooner Or Later” really shows how adventurous MFS can get inside of under three-minutes…I felt like this tune covered a lot of terrain for its short length and managed to make a maximum impact even stacked up against the tunes that had more time to communicate. The musicianship of this record has been consistently impressive and it is once again here; it’s that perfect pacing & space in their grooves that adds such a captivating pull through the hooks of “Sooner Or Later.” Around the ninety-second mark, Monkey Fightin’ Snakes takes a trip into a gripping stripped-down breakdown where Matt takes the mic for a memorable moment in this cut before they head back into the melody quickly once more before the end. It’s really clever stuff overall…and even here in one of the quietest & subtle moments of the record, Broken OFF Switch continues to provide reasons to listen.
Part of me suspects that even though it can feel at times like “There There” takes a while to get to its main hooks that the captivating sound in the music of this cut will keep the people sticking with it. First off, “There There” has one of the best openings of any of the cuts on the record – I think that’s an exceptionally inviting start to this song with the guitar-lines and crisp beat. Mid-tempo energy in a song is just about the hardest thing to ever pull-off…and I think you can hear a bit of that struggle to maintain here, but notably, I think MFS do get to where they want to go with this. When they have a chance to brighten-up the sound and get more involved through the chorus, this song really begins to sparkle & shine – and as a result of that inspired sound, they even seem to come back to the next verse with a renewed enthusiasm that continues to infiltrate the vibe on “There There.” It’s definitely a lower-key tune when it comes to its energy, but listen to the way they get inventive with the final minutes of “There There” and how catchy those chorus hooks have been along the way and you’ll find every reason to spin & re-spin this cut many times. It’s got an easygoing & comforting smooth-rock sound that expands gorgeously in its chorus and Matt does another killer job on the vocals, putting all the right energy and emphasis into the words to match the music insightfully well through all its different twists, turns & transitions and adding the right emotional depth to capture the meaning behind the words.
The final song on Broken OFF Switch is extremely satisfying – if I remember right, they crushed the ending of their last album as well…but for the record people, this is how you do it right. While Monkey Fightin’ Snakes COULD have ended the album on a series of highlight pop-rock or blues-rock explosions like they’ve had throughout Broken OFF Switch – they take one final departure into a meatier, darker sound and thought-provoking atmosphere on “Trying Too Hard” to end the record. That’s not to say it’s without hooks, it’s certainly got’em – that chorus is pure magic and bound to stick in people’s heads for quite a while…I know it’ll be bouncing around my dome for some time to come. It’s not going to be the first track that people reach for on this album – but it WILL be one they come back to; and that’s another reason as to why you’ll find it at the end – it certainly warrants inclusion on this record, but it’s absolutely a sound that needs to be absorbed in-full, digested, debated, considered and eventually accepted as a real highlight of Broken OFF Switch. “Trying Too Hard” has a real heartbeat you can feel in its groove & rhythm throughout its verse & chorus…the instrumental section & solos towards the end were a breathtaking way to finish the record, with those sweet keyboard notes from Rob and cello tones from featured guest Amber Walton-Amar peeking through the mix brilliantly. Definitely a track that lasts – you can tell from the structure and how this entire song sounds that you can come back to this one over and over again and it’ll continually satisfy beyond expectation, even long after you’ve heard it.
Essentially – everything you’ll hear on Broken OFF Switch by Monkey Fightin’ Snakes is a complete confirmation that this band isn’t just on the right path – they are absolutely THRIVING right now. There’s honestly not a solitary bad idea on this entire record and it’s fueled with genuinely interesting material and stunning musicianship from beginning to end – I love this album.
So much so, that I’ll be spinning at least one track from it to share with you on the ol’ SBS Podcast coming up. Make sure to stay tuned for that, it’ll be out this weekend sometime following this review – until then, stay up to-date on all-things Monkey Fightin’ Snakes by checking out their official page at: http://monkeyfightinsnakes.com/