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Thunder & Lightning Demonstrably Darker, Arctic Monkeys Storm into the Windy City

Colin Rich | Friday, September 4, 2009

The view from the Metro’s balcony Aug. 7 afforded teeming youth, tight security and total pandemonium as one of the U.K.’s most prolific and respectable rock acts, Arctic Monkeys, garnered an impressive turnout from many faithful, if not insomniac, Chicagoans.
Fresh off the release of their third album “Humbug,” the new look, new sound Monkeys descended upon the Midwest for a two-day stint at the north side’s Metro and, more notably, Lollapalooza in downtown Chicago. I managed to catch both shows, time enough to realize that like the title of their latest record insinuates, the band has opted to shun its pop influences and explore the far more intricate and mysterious shadows of rock in 2009.
The Monkeys first captivated Britpop fiends with 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” the fastest-selling debut album in UK chart history, and 2007’s “Favorite Worst Nightmare,” a similarly sensational sophomore release. Racking up awards on both sides of the Atlantic, two gallant strides towards stardom garnered the lads from Northern England not only critical acclaim but also an international fan base drawn in by the band’s punk take on guitar-rich pop anthems. Between 2007 and 2009, Monkeys’ lead singer Alex Turner took a divergent musical path, collaborating with The Rascals’ Miles Kane to form The Last Shadow Puppets, a lighter, more symphonic ensemble. Turner returned to the studio in mid-2008 for the Monkeys’ latest endeavor, “Humbug,” whose riffs prove just as nuanced and lyrics just as caustic as the band’s first two releases.
Sporting new shags and a smoldering new sound, the Monkeys have added greater depth to an already broad rock catalogue. While their first two albums balanced an even mixture of rock balladry and vigorous singles, “Humbug” revels in a dense, Sabbath-soaked psychedelia. The album creates clear separation from the band’s younger ventures as it sprouts a sensual and satisfying rock thicket for fans to hack away with repeated listens. The effects of the Monkeys’ collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme, who leant his electric touch as the album’s co-producer, surfaced in both live appearances.
Both shows arrested audiences with the rhythmically entrancing opener “Pretty Visitors,” setting the tone not just for the performances but for the arrival of the revamped Monkeys in America. The band took greater musical license and provided the most crowd-pleasing jams with their older material and wandering latest single “Crying Lightning.” Due to the recentness of the album’s release and its drastic departure from the band’s seminal artistry, other cuts from “Humbug” proved a more challenging listen for many Monkeys loyalists. Nevertheless, the Sheffield gang delivered with an engaging energy and enthusiasm, and demonstrated a formidable confidence in their departure from past glory.
Whether the band remains permanent rock sophisticates or proves temporary pop misers remains to be seen, but even the biggest early-Monkeys Scrooge would be hard pressed to find the highlights from “Humbug” at least a little compelling. Historically speaking, while rattling your fan base with a new sound always proves risky, many of rock’s greatest remain memorable for a freshening deviation from what fostered their initial popularity. As the Monkeys climb to new heights musically and emotionally, a more consistent and contemplative sound proves better suited for a band looking to mature. This maturation translated well into a sprightly live delivery of a deeper, more complex new expression. Before launching into their second-album single “Fluorescent Adolescent” at the Metro, Alex murmured, “It’s good to see you all again, Chicago. You’ve grown up!” It would appear so have you, Mr. Turner, and age continues to treat you well.