A lot can happen when a band trades a mandolin for a Les Paul. Ticking up the volumes, trading gloomy acoustic notations for rock structures and a band dealing with fame is all what 1994’s Monster by R.E.M. was. There’s a lot to unpack with this album, now reissued and remaster for a 25th Anniversary in both original and deluxe editions. While the deluxe version includes demos and a live concert, we’ve decided to focus on the original and all of its misunderstood leanings.
For a band that got big off of sad acoustic songs, who clawed their way out of Athens with a college rock sound a decade prior, Monster was a different sound for the fair weather fans the band picked up on the smash album Out of Time. It was also, a far cry from the band’s previous effort Automatic For The People. Peter Buck’s snarling guitar tones and Bill Berry’s snappy rhythms come through at full force here, steering away from what made the band media darlings.
The back story here is that Bill Barry wanted a rock album, to actually tour some time in the nineties since the band hadn’t yet done so by the time Monster was to be released. The album’s conception came from Barry not wanting to do a show on stools that was acoustic heavy, and was discussed in Acapulco before the band retreated to Kingsway Studio in New Orleans. With co-producer Scott Litt and about 45 songs, the band began pre-production before recording most of the album live in Atlanta at Crossover Soundstage. Production was also done in Miami at Criteria Studios and at Litt’s home studio in Los Angeles.
On the original, or in this case the remastered original, the music sounds as if it could have been released a week ago, and it still works. R.E.M. was essentially attempting to return to their college rock roots, yet the album transcends that and offers up a straight-forward rock album that holds up to this day. The opening track “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” snarls between Michael Stipe’s preening vocals and Peter Buck’s distortion pedal. The tremolo based stabs that cut between offer a weight that isn’t replicated by another band for the rest of the decade, and sets R.E.M. further from the rest of what was called alternative music.
The squealing tremolo heavy glam tones of “Crush With Eyeliner,” the indie rock graced tempo of “Star 69” and the feedback reverb on “I Took Your Name” all showcase a band in a space that no one who came from their era was up to at the time. But while the band steers the ship close to the territory of Kevin Shields on “Let Me In,” the album isn’t all a rock tour de force. The sweet and tender notes of “Tongue” stay with you throughout the piano lead and falsetto sung track. The dark and bulbous strands that make up “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” hone in on the louder side of the band’s mandolin based sound and “Strange Currencies” is one of the sweetest tracks the band has ever penned. It’s true that you couldn’t go into a used record store for the longest time without finding a copy of Monster. Just remember that history looks kindly on this album on not the fair weather fans who wanted another album with “Shiny Happy People”on it.
Both versions of Monster can be purchased directly from R.E.M.’s web store on various bundles and formats. Both versions are also available to purchase digitally wherever you download music or to stream on all platforms.
Image Credits: Photo by Keith Carter.