I’ll just go ahead and say it: Mono is the best post-rock band still standing. They’re more tuneful than Mogwai, and unlike that band (who haven’t made a record worth getting excited about in at least five years), their studio output is almost as captivating as their live shows. They’re better musicians than Explosions in the Sky, and their music isn’t weighed down by pretentious conceptual baggage like Godspeed You Black Emperor’s. Although most of their songs employ tried-and-true quiet/loud dynamic shifts, they’re capable of building and releasing tension through other methods. It took a while for Mono to reach greatness, though. Whereas their first two albums could rightfully be dismissed as Mogwai tributes, their third album Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined found them straining to step out of that band’s shadow. Unfortunately, many songs spent too long in self-conscious stasis, as if the band was withholding the explosions from us to prove a point.
With their latest release You Are There, Mono has finally arrived. This is a carefully composed album that runs through six songs in exactly 60 minutes, and not a single second is wasted. The dynamic shifts, whether they take seven minutes or seven seconds to arrive, are handled with grace. The quiet parts aren’t boring and the loud parts aren’t gratuitous. On Walking Cloud the band was augmented by a string quartet; on this album, guitarists Taka and Yoda BECOME the string quartet, layering slow staircase melodies on top of each other until the music is rich enough to render all non-rhythmic instruments unnecessary. Strings and keyboards only appear on two tracks, and even then they’re pushed to the back of the mix, allowing the guitars to remain front and center. Steve Albini’s recording and mixing is crisper than it was on Walking Cloud (i.e. you can actually HEAR bassist Tamaki this time). Thus, the record sounds both tactile and ethereal. Mono is rocking out in your living room, but as soon as you exit your house, you discover that you’re standing on a cloud.
Opening track “The Flames beyond the Cold Mountain” begins with Taka and Yoda playing a descending three-chord progression. The attack of their strumming is dampened by so much reverb and delay that the guitars sound like celli. Shortly after the three-minute mark the cloud of effects is lifted, and Taka and Yoda start plucking out slow minor-key arpeggios. A minute later, Tamaki’s bass starts guiding the band through the chord changes. Drummer Yasunori builds tension by creating a mountain of hiss with his cymbals. A minute later, Taka and Yoda return to the hazy strumming of the song’s intro; this time, though, the guitars are louder and the notes are an octave higher. At the six-minute mark, Yasunori starts bashing out a gliding rhythm, and the guitarists’ fingers wander higher and higher up the neck. At the seven-minute mark, Taka and Yoda step on the distortion pedals and the song EXPLODES. After a one-minute crescendo of white noise, the song retreats back into quietude. Just when you think the song should end, Mono tacks on another fearsome crescendo. The song finally peters out at the thirteen-minute mark. The average listener should be worn out by this point; the rest of us have 47 more minutes to get our faces blown off.
Three other songs on You Are Here exceed the 10-minute mark, and all of them follow a similar template. “Yearning” throws in some nice syncopation courtesy of Yasunori, as well as a brief section toward the end the recalls the doom metal of fellow countrymen Boris. “Are You There?” has no crescendo to speak of, but still manages to avoid the tedium of Walking Cloud’s weaker tracks. These epic dirges are nicely broken up by “A Heart Has Asked for the Pleasure” and “The Remains of the Day,” two brief, drum-less ballads whose major-key melodies let rays of sunshine peek through the album’s otherwise mournful atmosphere.
The only major criticism that can be leveled against You Are Here is that it’s formulaic. However, Mono has honed this sound so effectively that if you like any of the artists that I mentioned in the opening paragraph, you won’t care. If you haven’t heard those artists, then You Are Here will REALLY blow your mind. Yes, this sound has been done before, but it has never, ever been done this well. Not only has Mono outdone itself, but they’ve also taken the very bands they used to crib notes from back to rock school.
Artist Website: www.mono-44.com
Label Website: www.temporaryresidence.com