Monstrance is the name given to a trio comprised of XTC's resident guitarist, songwriter, and figurehead Andy Partridge; Shriekback keyboardist (and way-back XTC member) Barry Andrews; and drummer Martyn Barker, also of Shriekback. Any expectations that the self-titled Monstrance might sound like either of those venerable outfits can be tossed right out the window, though. This is two discs of purely improvisational music: no overdubs, no composition or rehearsal -- just three exceptional musicians heading into the studio and playing what their minds and hands tell them to, with little regard for accessibility, form, or mood. One might expect it to resemble free jazz, and Partridge has made no secret of his affection for same. But Monstrance sound nothing like Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor either. Like free jazz, it's often difficult music -- no place more so than the lengthy, meandering, tentative opening track, "I Lovely Cosmonaut" -- but stick it out and accept it on its own terms, and it bears more riches than it has a right to. That is, when it doesn't get mired in its own muck, unable to find a way out. Monstrance, for better and worse, never stays in one place for long. "Ur Tannoy" is a screech-fest of explosive noise, swirling, cacophonic bursts of feedback, roiling drums, and hypnotic (OK, annoying) loops. "Tagoda Tailfin" is faux ambient, suggestive of, though not really akin to, Partridge's 1994 collaboration with Harold Budd, Through the Hill. But where that music was composed and manicured, this is freewheeling and often out of control -- exhilarating at times, compelling, but undeniably indulgent, too. "Torturetainment" -- great evocative title, that -- not unpredictably, filters from metallic/prog rocky to vaguely soothing, while the album-closing "Priapple," 16 minutes of noodling in search of a song, feels like an abandoned soundtrack to a B horror flick. Will die-hard XTC fans take to it? That depends on whether they come to XTC for the band's quirky, angular pop and Partridge's finely crafted songs or for that seemingly now-defunct band's more experimental, edgy efforts. Suffice to say if it's solely for the former, this lengthy exercise in free-form won't win their hearts. Shriekback people will feel the funk, but shouldn't expect Monstrance to incite them to dance. In the end, only those with a great tolerance for ambling, off-the-cuff music-making will likely take the ride all the way through. Monstrance -- though there is no denying the intelligence and probing inquisitiveness that went into it -- is not for casual listening, it's not party music, and it isn't a whole lot of fun. But stick with it, give it a chance to take hold, really pay attention, open up, and as the music finds its way deep within your cranium you may just find yourself marveling at its nuanced shifts, inspired sound clashes, and ability to challenge its own makers at every turn.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2