Menomena the Phenomenon

“Menomena is a scientific musical wonder that layers its deliberate cut-and-paste genius into euphonic sculptures.” - MusicFestNW

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(Photo taken from Menomena’s social networking page.  Obviously, do not try this at home.)

They are the kind of band that causes you to shut up and stare.  You stare at them with your eyes because it’s cool-scale amending to see Justin Harris put down his bass and pick up the line with a baritone saxophone… because it’s gratifying to watch Brent Knopf shrug off the indie-austerity syndrome, smiling while he sings, plays keyboards, glockenspiel and guitar and probably simultaneously writes software programs in his head while he is triggering MIDI samples from his laptop… because it’s heart-stopping to witness the genius of Danny Seim as he staggers around his drum set like a man truly on his last legs, dripping sweat, bare of foot, and literally winding up before knocking the bloody hell out of his cymbal. (After writing this, I realize that portrays him as lacking finesse, which is entirely incorrect.)   

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(Photos taken from Menomena’s social networking page.  Justin Harris with baritone saxophone and bass, above; Danny Seim, middle; Danny Seim’s bloody sticks, below.)

You stare at them with your ears, taking in as much of the amalgamation of sound as possible.  Unlike many bands, Menomena does not play to tracks during a live performance, which in my opinion gives them both credibility and flexibility, however it also limits the extent to which they are able to recreate their recordings. Thankfully, this slightly pared down version of their music (pared down is the absolute last thing that comes to mind during a live show) gives the listener a fighting chance at catching most of the on-stage sonic action. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you stare at Menomena with your brain.  You are rapt, wondering, mesmerized, foraging for patterns, though as soon as you find one and sink your teeth into it, it’s gone and you’re left spinning, searching for another.  The band is always two steps ahead of their crowd, even as they perform familiar pieces, recordings of which have long been memorized (“The Pelican”).  In essence, fathoming a Menomena performance is like playing a raging game of Whack-A-Mole with your senses, but entirely pleasurable, if not giddifying (I made up that word just for this band.)

Not surprisingly, the trio experiences significant opposition as a record is birthed.  After all, they are illuminating a dark corner of music, which must be carefully unearthed and whose inhabitants are as of yet uninterpreted.  To expect only sunbeams and unicorns in the midst of such an ominous task is plain silly. Though it makes for tumultuous times during production, the un-stifled opposition calls forth tracks that are paramount.  To quote Danny Seim on the production of Mines, it is ”the best record that [they] could produce at this time in [their] lives”. I appreciate that.

The catalyst for their other-worldly arrangements is Knopf’s brainchild,  the DLR software program (pronounced DEELER, an acronym for Digital Looping Recorder), which is a recording and splicing tool that is uniquely used by Menomena to create compositions from various loops recorded during jam sessions.  “Dirty Cartoons” from Mines contains pristine examples of phrasing that probably wouldn’t flow in succession during a jam, but when the band chooses loops to be spliced, a super sonic scene is created.  For example, at 2:06 in “Dirty Cartoons”, a monster drum fill has the listener anticipating a scene similar to the opening of the giant doors that lead into the Land of Oz. Instead, the monster fill leads into a scene more like Yoda’s swamp in the Empire Strikes Back.  This is just speculation, but I’m pretty sure that’s a DLR moment. 

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(Photo taken from Menomens’a social networking page.  Brent Knopf with his Gollum hands, left;  Justin Harris, right.)

At MusicFest NW 2010 in Portland, Oregon, Menomena played to a packed Crystal Ballroom with guest guitarist, Joe Haege, from Tu Fawning and 31 Knots. Playing off of Friend and Foe [Barsuk; 2007] and Mines [Barsuk; 2010], the band’s set included “Tithe”, “The Pelican”, “Evil Bee”, “INTIL”, “Dirty Cartoons” and “Five Little Rooms”, the last two being my favorite tracks on Mines.  The anthemic chant at the end of “Dirty Cartoons” echoed through the ballroom as the crowd joined in “I’d like to….. go home…” , but we didn’t really want to, hence the encore and the begging for a double encore. After that show, I will never consciously miss another live Menomena performance (and if possible I will stand where I can clearly see Danny Seim).  If you’re lucky, you may still be able to catch them on tour in the Mid-Western and Eastern U.S. and Canada: Menomena tour dates.

Do your brain a big favor and download Mines on iTunes.  The highly sophisticated, refreshingly unique, yet familiar-enough-to-crave-after-only-one-listen record is a masterpiece and thus far #1 on my 2010 top 10 list.

Check out the 2007 Menomena session on Daytrotter (!) Another session is on the way. I’ll post it here when it is available, or you can get it at Daytrotter.com.

Other links sourced for this article:

Burnside Writer’s Collective. Interview with Menomena’s Justin Harris.

Indie Music Portland presents Danny Seim’s second project: Lackthereof

MusicFestNW 2010 Menomena

MusicFestNW 2010 Menomena. Not-So-Everyday People…

Quirkee.com Interview with Brent Knopf