If you are not familiar with the progressive doom project MONOLITHE, then you have been sorely missing out on one of France’s greatest exports. Their latest chapter, MONOLITHE IV, continues their extraterrestrial saga of black hole levels of heaviness and zero kelvin atmospherics in yet another single serving size, 50+ minute epic.

For the record, I decided to explore the nether regions of space right around when Interlude Second was released, the final act of a two part EP. Soon after, MONOLITHE III was unleashed, and I was officially hooked. However, I was disappointed by some of the mastering decisions that were constantly being made by a project that lives or dies on a single, solidarity track. As a result, I approached Sylvain Bégot, the creative driving force behind MONOLITHE, to discuss MONOLITHE III, the Loudness War, and of course bringing some much needed dynamics to the their next project, MONOLITHE IV.

Over the course of several months, Sylvain and I discussed a myriad of issues that ultimately led to my involvement in MONOLITHE IV. Find out how it happened below.

MFi: For those not familiar with MONOLITHE, can you give us an overview on how the project got started and the concept behind it?

Sylvain: MONOLITHE started as a side-project in 2001. I was playing in another band called Anthemon (1997-2007) back then, with which I recorded four albums. I actually composed some material that I thought wouldn’t fit Anthemon’s style so I decided to create another band with which I could explore a new musical path. What I had already written was roughly the first 15 minutes of our debut album M1. From that point, I went on working simultaneously on more music, lyrics, as well as an overall concept for the band. After a while, it became obvious that the music I was working on would take the shape of a single song album; that’s when the name MONOLITHE popped-up by itself, as well as the concept (one song albums, one story narrated through different chapters, one composer, etc.). Lyrically I intended to write an epic story about a sentient entity (being the universe itself, that I called “The Great Clockmaker”) creating mankind, unconsciously, or by accident in order to cure itself from meaninglessness and entropy, which are diseases for it. There are a lot of other things to say but I leave that for the audience to find out!

The band itself consisted of just me to start with, but I asked my good friend Benoît Blin to join as a guitarist and Richard Loudin as a vocalist. The latter was already quite known in France back then, but he immediately accepted. I can say we are MONOLITHE’s heart and core. The other different band members who played on our albums over the years joined us because I required something special from them, but it has never been intended to keep them in the long run.

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MFi: Each chapter of the MONOLITHE project seems musically linked yet each record can also stand on its own as an accomplished piece in itself. How does IV embody that concept and fit overall to the MONOLITHE back story?

Sylvain: Some albums are written from an omniscient point of view, some others from mankind’s point of view, and the last one, M4, from that entity’s point of view. It contrasts with the first album’s lyrics, in which the focus was put on humanity’s first steps and rise to knowledge thanks to the monoliths (just like in “2001 A Space Odyssey”), whose origin, at that point of the story, was unknown. Each new album dealt with something bigger, wider than the previous.

Musically, I intended to follow a certain discipline while writing new music for what would become M2. My motto has been since: “progression in continuity”. It means that certain things (style played, some gimmicks – like our typical twin harmonized lead guitars paned on left and right, way of playing riffs, the long songs, etc.) link the albums together, so one can recognize immediately that this music is typical MONOLITHE, and some other things are new with each new album so they can stand on their own. For example, M2’s overall atmosphere is more beautiful than M1’s, which was mystic and heavy. M3 is a very progressive album, with many riffs and twists; M4 is very contrasted, with battles of very bleak versus very melodic or “dreamy” parts. We had an accordion in M2, added an orchestra part in M3, a female choir in M4. We try and provide something else each time. There is a common blueprint, a skeleton, but the flesh and skin are different each time.

MFi: M4 came within a year after M3 which is atypical, when did M4’s writing process actually begin and how long did it take?

Sylvain: No, M3 has actually written much faster. It took about 6 weeks to complete it, whereas M4 required 6 or 7 months of work. I didn’t work everyday of course but this one required more time to get out of my system. Let me explain..

After a few years’ hiatus, MONOLITHE came back to life with a new EP called Interlude Second (that was supposed to become M3 when we recorded it back in 2007/2008) in January 2012, released on Bandcamp only. Then I immediately started working on a new album because, after almost 5 years without writing any music, I felt motivated again and very inspired. We recorded, mixed, and mastered this new album until July 2012 and the album came out in November. But between July and November, since we’re not a touring band, I already went back to work. So, by the time M3 came out, M4 was already much advanced. I finished it in January 2013 and we went back to the studio in February, finished in June, etc. And the release has been set to late October. So, as you can see, there’s nothing absolutely astonishing about it.

MFi: When I approached you after III to talk about the Loudness War and dynamic range compression, what was your first reaction?

Well, I was surprised because that was uncommon. I was already aware of the Loudness War though, and I knew there was some clipping on M3. I was less aware of the reasons why and how we could improve it without sacrificing the heavy wall of sound that our music requires. I can’t call myself an audiophile but there were already heard some productions from other bands that I couldn’t stand listening for too long because it was so loud that it ended up being cacophonous. I knew there was room for improvement on our own productions but at this point I simply though that it was only a matter of financial means. I ended up understanding that I was wrong: it is mainly a choice. But to make that choice, you must be aware of what’s wrong in the first place. You, somehow, opened my eyes on this; that I could be more prepared; talk more with the engineer before and get a more dynamic album the next time. Since you were the one that came around, I hired you and your damn DR meter so you could help the band achieving this!

MFi: After a while you were very receptive to the idea, what changed, and more importantly, what made you realize that bringing back dynamics to MONOLITHE, was the right move?

Sylvain: If my memory doesn’t betray me, I was receptive to the idea right away. The thing is: I thought it would be difficult to get a great sounding metal album without the use of compression because of the costs of better equipment that would allow us to gain heaviness without using the compressing tools that much; And I tried to explain it to you, I was not totally wrong, in the sense that we had to buy some more stuff in order to get a heavier guitar tone before the compression when we recorded M4. But that was nothing unaffordable after all (Amp simulator plug-ins mostly, D.I., etc. not that much expenses).

It totally made sense to bring more dynamics back into our work because of the nature of our music. There are many layers of sound and those sounds need room to be heard. It’s as simple as that. Take the last Fleshgod Apocalypse record: These guys are obviously skilled composers. Their records are very, very rich and textured. So why ruin all this work with this absolutely awful mastering? All you can hear is some kind of audio mud. It has really crossed the frontier between music and noise, in the wrong side unfortunately. It reduces all their hard work to shit.

Fortunately for MONOLITHE, our previous albums are not “that” compressed (DR6), especially when compared to what is done nowadays. I think you can’t go below. But I’m pretty happy we increased the dynamic to DR8 with M4. It improved the production much more than what I would have expected in the first place. It was a beautiful experience to listen to it and hear every layer so well when Andrew sent me the last master. If we record a new album someday, I’ll try and reach a nice DR10 and both you and Dave will be happy and leave me alone with your DR meter weapon! Seriously though, I think it really helps the music to breathe and shine. Your fight is right, you get all my support! You’re the environmentalists of metal music!

MFi: Being part of the final mastering stage was an absolute honor for me. But I also found the experience enlightening too as we went through four distinct mixes that all sounded the same but “different.” Sylvain, can you give an overview of how we went through the process and how you and the band finally decided on the final master?

Sylvain: Actually the process started with the mix, for which Andrew, our sound engineer, gave me a first version of his own (helped by a premix I have done myself) that I used as a reference to tell him how I wanted the overall record to sound like. Then we went through mixing details, which is a stage that requires several more versions. When Andrew gave me the first mastered version, I submitted it to you, and waited for your comments. You gave me your thoughts and I included those that I thought were beneficial for the album in the feedback I gave to Andrew. I didn’t take in account those I thought went against my choices as the composer and producer of the band, but they were only a small part of them. Overall, you’ve been of great help. It may surprises you, but the other band members are not involved in the mixing and mastering process. I think the less people involved, the better. Especially when these people have fresh ears and hindsight, so you don’t end up releasing a compromised master about which no one is 100% happy. The agreement on the “final cut” has been the master approved by Andrew, you and me.

MFi: Why do you think metal bands wound up with crushed masters if higher dynamics sound better?

Sylvain: I think it comes from a lack of awareness mostly. If you don’t know, you just do it like anybody else. Heavily compressed albums are the fast food of music production. A DR3 album is a McDonald’s second hand burger, even if the music is good it just spoils it. A higher dynamic one is a gastronomic restaurant ran by a chef. It can’t be clearer! Just like food, what make people enjoy quality and reject bad products are knowledge and awareness.

Sometimes, artists don’t know what’s going on in the mastering room. And let’s be honest here: being a musician does not include being an audiophile. I don’t pretend being one myself at all. I own many albums at DR6 and it doesn’t disturb me that much, especially when the engineer is talented enough to make it sound great anyway. But it starts to be annoying when it’s compressed below DR6. It just can’t sound good anymore. But that’s just me. And I also totally understand why some people think that even DR8 is unacceptable.

There are many musicians who don’t own or use proper hardware to listen to music, including me! The only moments when I have time to listen to music is when I take the metro or when I go running. Not the quieter moments of my days! I have an IPod and that’s the device I use for 90% of my music listening time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think music deserves, overall, descent production.

Metal bands need to be informed about this and keep an open mind when they’re told that something is wrong when they come up with a super crushed album. Nobody likes being told that what he did has flaws, but when you remain humble and listen to what other people have to say, perhaps you can improve and become better at what you do. Isn’t that the case in life in general?

MFi: I’ve always assumed that due to the nature of MONOLITHE’s single slice approach that a vinyl release would present some real technical challenges. Have you ever thought about MONOLITHE on wax?

Sylvain: Yes, we did talk about it a lot with Debemur Morti Productions (and also another label specialized in vinyl who contacted us about it), but so far it didn’t go any further. It will happen some day, probably, but not right now. The main problem doesn’t come from the length of the songs but from the uncertainty of being able to sell enough copies. Since the production of vinyl is not cheap, we’ll see where MONOLITHE stands in a few months or years and decide then if it’s worth the risk.

There are indeed technical problems, though. Even if we cut our albums in two (one half for each side of the vinyl), those parts would be 25 to almost 30 minutes long and that’s too much. Usually, it’s better to not cross the 20 minutes threshold for one side or else the quality of the sound would be altered. The obvious solution is to cut the album in three. But that would require cutting two discs, which would raise the production price. What could work is to release two albums together on a three disc vinyl release. I would really like it to happen some day, but as I said earlier, it’s not a priority right now.

MFi: What artists have influenced MONOLITHE over the years?

Sylvain: Honestly, I don’t know. Apart from MONOLITHE’s main influences, which have mostly been bands from the early British death/doom scene in the early 90’s, there are probably many things I listened to or saw which had an impact on my way of composing music. But this is not a conscious process. It’s not like I’m listening to something and think “I would like to do something like that.” Music, movies, art, or books I’m confronted with are mixed together as a “cultural soup” from which inspiration is drawn without really realizing what comes from what. That could be anything, really. I, for example, composed that kind of oriental bolero section in the middle of M4 after being influenced by Jordanian and Saudi music during a trip to the Middle East. It was not my intention to do it this way in the first place, but it ended up sounding like this because this music impressed me for its richness, textures and hypnotic, charming appeal – it left its mark on me. Then it had to get out in some way, and that’s how it did. The primal influence has been digested and reshaped into something new, something that went through my filter and ultimately something that belongs to MONOLITHE only.

MFi: What is the future of the project?

Sylvain: After M4 is released, we’re going to focus on the reissues. Our debut album, M1, has been reissued in August with new artwork. The same will go with M2 and our two EPs, which will be released together on a compilation called M0. And then…I don’t know! Our story finished with M4. Maybe we’ll come back some day with something new (at DR10 too!). But right now, it’s too early to say.