The Full-Tilt, Half-Naked Joys of Israeli Cock Rockers Monotonix

On the gleeful, uncouth, spontaneous, not-at-all-satirical chaos

The cover art for Monotonix's upcoming full-length Where Were You When It Happened? is a crotch-shot of two fists tearing open an unzipped denim fly. Someone has probably sneaked your camera into the bathroom and taken this sort of picture as a prank, except bursting from the pants-seam in this case are three scuzzy Israeli gentlemen comically aligned in a bushy phallus formation, frontman Ami Shalev's index finger shooting up suggestively high. What it looks like is a Spinal Tap art-directed sequel to Sticky Fingers. What it boasts, with zero embarrassment, is COCK ROCK.

"It's the most . . . [pause] . . . fun . . . [pause] . . . place in the human body," Shalev explains over the phone from Israel. He is attempting—despite the jarring conversational delays of a hiccupping international phone connection and the hesitant wording that befits a man whose first language isn't English—to explain why his band chose this particularly memorable, vivid, and "flirty" (his word) image for the trio's first full-length, out September 8, their second Drag City release after the 2008 EP Body Language. "It seems to have kind of represented the band and the album. You know, colorful, a little bit sexy."

Truth is, the "colorful" illustration, this garage-mewl of a release, the eight songs held within—they all don't matter. Monotonix's recordings are Playboy articles: worthy secondary features almost always eclipsed by raw distraction, i.e., a relentlessly entertaining live show, a furiously pulverizing storm of sleaze-rock hijinks and impressive aerial feats including (but not limited to) rafter-swinging, two-man somersaults, drink-flinging, beer showers, choreographed fire, trash-can-lobbing, and crowd-surf drumming (with uplifted snares and everything). You do not go to a Monotonix show to see what they play; you go to see what they do.

No, that isn’t Borat.
Rebecca Smeyne
No, that isn’t Borat.
Just be glad he’s still wearing the shorts.
Rebecca Smeyne
Just be glad he’s still wearing the shorts.

Most of their shows begin on the floor, with the audience. Other fourth-wall crashers have their own atmospheric conceits: Electro-spazz emcee Dan Deacon sets up in the crowd and turns rooms into waggle-dancing obstacle courses of sing-alongs, monologues, and loosely scripted contests; noise-monster duo Lightning Bolt pick a corner, encircle themselves within a suffocating crescent of bodies, and transform the place into a ceremonial sauna/mass seizure. Monotonix's approach is far more chaotic, far more stunt-driven, far more spectacular, which made them photo-blog legends after South by Southwest 2008. Shalev, a curly-maned lion of a frontman, almost always ends up shirtless, in shorts and sneakers, his squiggly rug of chest hair as much an identifying characteristic as the sharply accented consonants of his faux-metal roar. Depending on the available resources, he will, at exaggeratedly unpredictable intervals, dangle from the ceiling, ascend street signs, climb trees, leap onto bartops, bite guitar necks, balance on barricades, scale fences, launch trash cans into the air like beach balls, French-kiss strangers, and place the microphone between his pale buttcheeks, as if it's singing. All of this is improvised. (Except when fire is involved.) "The best ideas come in a minute," he insists.

There's obviously tomfoolery at play here, a commitment to theatrical absurdity, a bawdy sense of mischief. Last year, at Union Hall, Shalev dumped hot candle wax down his own pants, groped a female member of opening band Dark Meat, and pretended to have an unsuspecting elephant statue fellate him. Another one of Monotonix's recurring live gags involves Shalev endlessly terrorizing drummer Haggai Fershtman, eerily a dead ringer for Borat, by climbing on his back, stealing beer from the audience to pour on his cymbals, and emptying overflowing trash cans on his head while Fershtman heroically manages not to miss a beat. It's a kind of circus-clown ruse that borders on slapstick, yet it's executed so deliberately that it never falls into the dreaded trespasses of irony.

There's also nothing ironic about Monotonix's music. "Cock rock" is generally used as snootily derisive shorthand for guitar-solo wankery and specifically masculine willful ignorance. "I prefer it," Shalev insists. It is a fair description of both Body Language and Where Were You When It Happened?, though "garage-scuzz," "blues-fuzz," or "Thin Lizzy without melodies" would also do. Guitarist Yonatan Gat can actually wail (which is perhaps why he's the least prominent member of the band live—he's actually, y'know, focused on his instrument), which explains why opener "Flesh and Blood" is meaty with Brontosaurus riffs. On "I Can't Take It Anymore," Shalev strangely adopts the bellowing of Superunknown-era Chris Cornell, but for most of the record, his voice is low in the mix, as if he's singing at the end of a tunnel, which is probably the closest one can get to re-creating Monotonix's live experience, when you can barely hear his voice because he's too busy exposing his hairy ass or lighting something on fire. You'd be forgiven for thinking the revved-up two-minute thrash-serenade "Spit It in Your Face" is a love song, but it isn't.

"It looks weird if I say we have a sense of humor, but I think that our shows kind of show that we do," says Shalev. But while a tremendous live band like New York's Les Savy Fav also enjoy notoriety for goofball shenanigans and a commanding stage presence, bubble-bellied frontman Tim Harrington behaves far more like a court jester than his Israeli counterpart. And unlike bodysuit-flaunting '70s-FM-rock jokesters like the Darkness, Monotonix defiantly aren't satire. Hyperbole, perhaps. Parody, no. Shalev really has Ronnie James Dio hair and really does share an uncanny resemblance to Ted Nugent on the cover of Cat Scratch Fever. "I'm 44 years old," he explains. "You can't look like me or act like me if you don't have a little bit sense of humor."

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