Former alt-rock pioneers keep pioneering
When R.E.M announced their breakup in 2011, rock music lost a pioneering titan. Upon first listen, their simplistic and jangly sound doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking, but what mattered was the timing. In the early 1980s, post-punk and new wave were dominating rock. R.E.M emerged as a counter to these avant-garde and keyboard-heavy groups with a sound that critics dubbed ‘alternative rock’.
Nowadays alternative rock is all over the mainstream markets, and the term is hardly novel in the least. But at the time R.E.M was onto something big. The quartet, who formed in Athens when they were studying at the University of Georgia, first scored hits in 1987 with “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” before striking it big a few years later with songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” They were a huge influence on their British counterparts The Smiths and laid a foundation for ‘90s alternative and grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Radiohead and Pavement. But after 1994’s Monster, their American fanbase began to dwindle, though it grew in the UK. In 2011 the band officially called it a day. Now in 2019, the 25th-anniversary re-release of Monster is out.
Monster is not a sound R.E.M is known for. Peter Buck’s signature jangly guitar playing is distorted and dark. In the original, Michael Stipe’s distinct singing style is buried beneath the wall of sound. Luckily, the re-release contains a remixed version by the original engineer, which means that tracks like the headbanging “Star 69” and the fuzzed-out opener “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” bring his voice up in the mix, allowing the listener to hear the melodies for what they were intended to be. Also included is a CD of demos, mostly instrumental or with little to no melody. Some of them are pretty good, like the Johnny Cash outlaw stylings of “Harlan County with Whistling” the old-school R.E.M banger “Up-tempo Mo Distortion,” and the punk-sounding “Revolution.” Finally, there’s a live concert featuring Monster alongside raucous versions of the band’s previously mentioned smash hits.
Those who didn’t like Monster before probably won’t warm up to it now, but for fans of R.E.M looking for something to get through the breakup, this release features a treasure trove of unreleased material that they’ll welcome with open arms.