One thing about 2020 started off well: Two of my favorite musical acts released albums on the same day. Let’s dig into the one I pre-ordered, first…
My first exposure to Mono Inc was “Boatman,” a single released in advance of the album Together Til The End, that featured Ronan Harris of VNV Nation. I bought that album and became an instant fan of this goth metal act. Their 2018 album, Welcome to Hell, is absolutely outstanding. I’ve gone a couple records into their back catalog now (Terlingua and Nimmermehr) and have been looking forward to this new release for months now.
The Book of Fire is an interesting record. The band seems to do themed albums, somewhat, after a fashion. They’re all songs from another time, albeit pretending all the while that the other time being referenced had modern drum kits and electric guitars and such. Together Til The End is the golden age of high seas piracy record, Terlingua is the tales of the Wild West record, Welcome To Hell is the Great Plague record, and so on. This one’s harder for me to pin down, though the Spanish Inquisition and The Crusades seem to figure prominently. Make of it what you will, I suppose. Maybe if I was better at parsing lyrics it would all come clearer for me. Such is life.
Mono Inc is, first and foremost, a hard rock band. Barn-burners and rock anthems are their stock in trade. That hasn’t changed on this album, not really, but they seem to be experimenting with pushing song lengths out quite a bit. I checked: Most songs on the previous four albums are within half a minute of the four minute mark, and rarely did they push past five minutes. “It Never Rains” on Terlingua is an outlier at six full minutes long. The Book of Fire starts out, track one, with the title song clocking in at a full seven minutes twenty. It’s encroaching on Yes-like prog-rock territory, and it’s one of two songs here to smash past the seven minute mark.
(If you buy the digital release, by the way, some bets are hedged: There’s a “single” version of the title song which is… just under six minutes long. Well then.)
Fewer than half of the dozen songs on this release are under five minutes long. A big change! But does it work? I mean, as I noted in my review of Garbage’s Strange Little Birds album, going prog is certainly pitching to my strike zone as a music fan. Unfortunately in this case… it does not entirely work out. The band mostly takes advantage of the extra song length to repeat lyrics and choruses a bit more. The other seven-minute-plus song here, “Where The Raven Flies,” gets a lot right and almost justifies the entire experiment in the extended bridge section but ends up needing to be edited down by an entire lyrics/chorus cycle. I almost love it, I really do. It really swings for the fences, though, and I absolutely want to see the band try this sort of thing again. With practice I think they could get good at it.
With that said, let’s be clear: This is still a nice big bundle of barn-burners and rock anthems. “Louder Than Hell” is, well, the “Welcome To Hell” of this album. (Speaking of comparisons to the previous record: I really wish they hadn’t almost completely lifted the superb “A Vagabond’s Life” from the last album and turned it into “Nemesis.” I can’t hear the new song without wishing I was listening to the other version of it.) “Right For The Devil” and “The Gods of Love” and “Warriors” are standouts in an album that doesn’t have any truly awful songs out of the dozen on offer.
Overall, The Book of Fire is a strange combination of the band playing it safe (moving away from some of the more experimental structure and pacing of the last album in favor of mostly straight-up rocking out) and trying something new (extended song lengths, including two songs with prog-like structuring). It’s not bad, it’s not the best, it’s just pretty good. As Patrick H Willems has pointed out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “pretty good.” So yes, I can recommend the album.