Monster X, “Ultra”

Berlin breakcore badass Monster X delivers a thoughtful mini-masterpiece that circumvents the dance floor and injects the party straight into your brain.

The storied Opal Tapes label can always be expected to do all sorts of unexpected things, but I couldn’t believe they’d be releasing music by the early 90s grindcore band Monster X. So when Ultra was announced, I had to investigate. Little did I know that other artists have taken up the Monster X mantle, including sound designer Julien Caraz. This crisp, compact album delivers as much speed as grindcore, but with the harmonic expansiveness of Vangelis on an ill-advised bender.

With an artful sleight of hand, “Summer Rec” opens as a breezy jingle with the contrapuntal complexity of a Bach fugue, but the album unfolds with an understated ambiguity and classy minimalism—well, as minimalist as you can get while still dancing with the chaos of breakcore. The shimmering “No Device” proceeds jazz-like through movements that rise and fall without resolving, the scattered rhythms taking on the expressiveness of melody while the bright layers of synthesizer ooze like a string orchestra far off in the distance. The interplay between rhythm and harmony is exquisite, but never overbearing.

Much like more famous peers such as Venetian Snares or the venerable ‘Twin, Caraz eschews quantized beats for a free-form layering of beats-as-melody. “Rejekt,” for instance, trips and stumbles, warps and whirrs, never finding solid footing but nevertheless exploring new terrain.

Elsewhere, “Happy New Slave” veers on an aggressive edge, with whiplash laser beams driving something close to standard breakbeats—but never quite all the way. Disorder reigns on “1 Sound,” where thumping kicks and broken dial-up buzzes push back against billowing waves of echoing harpsichord. Familiar and foreign sounds are never quite in tension, but never quite merge—and your attention never wavers, but never fully locks in to what’s going on.

Chords break up beats, beats slash through harmonies, all in a massacre of shattered musical frontiers that you won’t even notice until all the pieces fall where they lay. Innovating in the nether regions of electronic music is difficult, if not exceedingly rare, but Monster X makes it seem like child’s play. Perhaps it is.