Retrospective: Mournful Congregation – “The Monad of Creation”

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More than anything, I’ve always known music to be a healing force: Music has helped me accept and cope with loss, anxiety, and tragedy at any given time in my life and has been the glue that held fragile me together when adversity reared its head. There are certain songs or albums that I find it difficult to return to at times because of the memories they pull back to the surface, and others yet that continue to gain new meaning upon subsequent listens during changing circumstances. Then there are albums that seem to root themselves in my cortex and are there no matter the changes that life brings or the passing of seasons; they become so infused into how I listen to music that they become, whether consciously or subconsciously, the standard by which I judge other pieces of music. Mournful Congregation‘s 2005 album The Monad of Creation falls into this category, and aside from that, may well be the textbook as well as the modus operandi album for doom metal in the 21st century.

My first encounter with the music of Mournful Congregation was sometime in early 2014 shortly after I became unemployed for a time. I was browsing 20 Buck Spin’s Bandcamp page after purchasing Samothrace’s Reverence to Stone and saw several albums listed by Mournful Congregation. Being a huge fan of doom metal already, including funeral doom (Evoken and Ahab up to that point), I was familiar with the name and checked out the title track from The June Frost. I immediately fell in love with the band’s knack for beautiful, climactic songwriting while clinging tightly to the dirge of doom metal. Soon after was where magic happened: I backtracked to the previous page and listened to the first track from The Monad of Creation, “Mother-Water, The Great Sea Wept.” I was awe-struck at the beauty of the openness of the sound, the intricacy of the layered guitars (I’ve always been a sucker for counter-melodies and harmonies), and the finesse of the pacing of the song. It was metal that was ineffably beautiful, heart-rending, and touched something deep within me. I immediately bought three CDs, The Monad of Creation among them.

The first time I listened to the album the whole way through, I knew that this was probably one of the most emotionally significant albums I’d ever listen to. I was enthralled by the opening track already, but once I got to the last four minutes of it, I suddenly cracked open. There have been only a handful of times that music has brought me to tears, and this was the most powerful instance. A simple harmonized guitar figure over sparse drums, just sound waves in themselves, had unlocked something. After the tension and pain I had been repressing for months because of my job loss and some other life events, this album unlocked it and helped me to process it. Albums like The Monad of Creation serve as reminders that the best music to grace human ears stirs something deep within us and does not leave us unchanged.

Even though the album is a decade old , The Monad of Creation is an album that has effectively trumped most funeral doom metal currently being released. Whatever adages and cliches exist about timeless music apply entirely to an album like Monad. From its intricate, cinematic songwriting to the glassy, immaculate production, The Monad of Creation is a genre-defining masterpiece. It’s one that makes for easy comparisons (e.g., early Opeth on downers, the logical successor to My Dying Bride’s Turn Loose the Swans, etc.), Monad stands in a league of its own and as a landmark achievement not just for funeral doom or even doom as a whole, but for the entire metal genre. The band took their sweet time putting this out – their debut album, Tears From a Grieving Heart, came out six years before – but albums like Monad only come along every so often in the often over-saturated metal genre, so the gap was fitting. It’s an album the impact of which is still felt today, more so with the rising number of doom metal bands; particularly in funeral doom, Monad stands like a fortress among a wasteland, constantly reminding us of what the genre is capable of but rarely achieves in terms of artistry.

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What sets Monad of Creation apart from most albums in funeral doom is its focus on the emotional and atmospheric weight of the compositions. Where most in the genre define “heavy” in terms of the weight of the sound – rumbling bass, molten guitar tone, echoing drums – Mournful Congregation focus their energies on plumbing emotional depths that take listeners into a fragile yet austere state that can only be described as a union of grief, loneliness, and awe at the smallness of humanity in proportion to the larger universe. (Note: You know that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where they’re in the woods of Galadriel and everything is SOOO pretty and immaculate yet kinda sad? It’s like that but way more epic.)

Imagine a still ocean at night time with a full moon: A gentle breeze swathes you; the water does not move but is like perfectly polished crystal. Everything is nearly silent and the moment seems to hang in eternity. This is only a starting point for the atmosphere of the entirety of the album. The music itself, while certainly funeral doom – slow tempos, downtuned riffs stretched over minutes at a time, subterranean death growls juxtaposed with deathly whispers – revels more in beauty than in hopelessness; rather than focus on the dread of death, it directs its focus toward the cosmic and transcendental.

The lyrics follow suit, exploring mythological (“Mother – Water, the Great Sea Wept”) and near-liturgical (“When the Weeping Dawn Beheld Its Mortal Thirst”) themes with the finesse of a seasoned writer who understands the overarching aim of funeral doom. Additionally, the penultimate track “The Weeping Dawn…” forgoes metal entirely, relying on delicate acoustic guitars, fretless bass, and slowly crescendoing drums to drive its solemn march. If there was ever a song in doom metal to prove that “heaviness” does not automatically equate to emotional resonance, the third track of Monad is all the proof one needs.

Miles Davis originated the often repeated statement: “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” Mournful Congregation apply this sentiment with skill on The Monad of Creation. Where most funeral doom bands fill the space between notes with artificial reverb, feedback, or synths, MC simply let it exist on Monad. Silence and decaying notes are used to a great extent here, with a warm and subtle reverb coming off of the guitars and the drum hits; and rather than the silence feeling ominous and weighty, it’s soothing. To my ears, this is easily one of the most natural sounding records in the entire metal genre. Nothing feels doctored or quantized, and the brilliant mixing job brings all elements of the sound into equilibrium while the mastering preserves the dynamics of the movement within the music.

It’s easy to think of “classic” albums as those released in the 80s and 90s, but The Monad of Creation has rightfully earned a place in the hall of genre-defining masterpieces in heavy metal music. Often emulated but never equaled, it is, simply, the funeral doom album of the past 15 years and absolutely one of the most emotionally resonant records that you could dig into. Those who suggest otherwise haven’t a clue what doom is really about.

The symbol of life and death
The totem of something lost
Between manvantara and pralaya

The monad of creation
The pendant of thy being
A concept of illusion
Not everything is seen

– Dustin

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