May 9, 2009

Hymn to the Immortal Wind by Mono (Review)

Where Mono does triumph, and what prevents them from sounding stale and repetitive, is the emotional heft that their music brings to bear.

Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Reviewed…

Hymn to the Immortal Wind by Mono

Methinks that now’s not really the best time to be listening to Mono’s Hymn to the Immortal Wind, and yet, it also strikes me as the absolute perfect time.

The headlines are rife with news of worldwide economic collapse. The U.S. is, in many ways, more divided than ever, with some confident that we’re on the right path and others shouting from the rooftops that we’re heading towards some new dark age. New environmental concerns seem to appear every other day. Our culture is fixated on so much that is shallow, hollow, and false. Every time we seem to make strides against them, the twin hydras of terrorism and religious extremism lift up a few more ugly heads. And finally, if all of that weren’t bad enough, we’ve got pirates to deal with, too.

And then along comes Hymn to the Immortal Wind, the latest from the Japanese post-rock quartet, and it strikes me as a perfect soundtrack for the times. While listening to their apocalyptic sturm und drang, I find myself given to emotional outbursts as big as the band’s musical ones; I simultaneously want to cry at the sight of the dark territories their music traverses even as I am buoyed up by, and rallying to, the climactic moments when their music rails against the darkness.

The genre of music that Mono inhabits — instrumental post-rock, for lack of a better term — has been largely played out (personally, it stopped holding my interest shortly after Godspeed You Black Emperor! released Yanqui U.X.O.). By that time, even the genre’s stalwarts — e.g., Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Explosions In The Sky, Mogwai — sounded trapped by the genre’s inherent limitations, trapped within a box that they made for themselves.

Some disappeared or went on extended hiatus. Others continued on and became a shadow of themselves, their sound becoming further diluted by all of the pretenders to the throne that had emerged, by younger instrumental outfits following the same basic musical pattern laid out in F#A# Infinity and Young Team.

Even knowing their 10 year history, I’d always lumped Mono in with the rest of the pretenders. It wasn’t that their music was bad per se, it was just nothing I hadn’t heard a hundred times before. And that second part hasn’t really changed with Hymn to the Immortal Wind.

You see, Mono doesn’t bring anything new to the table music-wise. The album consists of songs that, over the course of 10+ minutes, move from moments of gentle, reflective melancholy to torrential downpours of roaring guitars and crashing drums and back, all the while carried along on a slow-burn of dramatic, expansive orchestral arrangements. At their best, they achieve the same level of bombast held by Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the height of their powers, minus the agitprop, while maintaining an almost “pop”-like sensibility akin to that which you find in Explosions In The Sky’s lighter moments.

But where Mono does triumph, and what prevents them from sounding stale and repetitive, is the emotional heft that their music brings to bear, proving that even a played out genre, when played right, is capable of tapping into deep reserves of emotion, elation, and tears. It’s nearly impossible for me to make it through “Ashes in the Snow” without having to make sure I’ve got a tissue handy in case I lose it during this particular listen. There’s something almost primal at work in this song, as the band slowly emerges from a hailstorm of feedback led by gentle chimes and bells, and builds toward an inevitable climax fueled by sweeping strings, interweaving guitars, and the barrages that Yasunori Takada unleashes from his drumkit.

On paper, it’s the same old formula. But listening to it, the formula disappears and all that remains are the surprisingly urgent images and emotions summoned forth by the quartet and their collaborators. I find myself torn between tears and laughter, reminded that we live in a world that is broken beyond any of our attempts to fix it and yet still marked by indescribable beauty. I think of my young son, and of all of the ways that the world will wound him, and of the Grace and Love that surrounds him nevertheless. Suffice to say that by the end of even just its opening track, Hymn to the Immortal Wind has left me exhausted and enthralled. I feel as if I’ve experienced nothing short of a musical eucatastrophe, to use Tolkien’s term.

Ashes in the Snow” is the album’s strongest track (and easily the best thing I’ve ever heard from the band). As such, the remainder of the album can fade into the background if you let it, but a closer listen reveals many more lovely moments spaced throughout its length. For example, “Burial At Sea” adopts a fittingly somber tone that is held up by the mournful strings and Takada’s inexorable tympani; it’s the best song Sigur Rós hasn’t recorded to date, the music conveying emotions that no human voice, no matter how angelic, possibly could. And despite it’s relatively short length, “Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn” contains one of the album’s most beautiful orchestral passages.

Mono proves again and again that they are more than capable of creating big musical moments that pack plenty of shock and awe. But their subtler, quieter moments — a gentle flute that is barely audible above the din, an elegant harpsichord, some minimal piano notes — are just as stirring, and while seemingly insignificant, they lend the music a few richer shades of color. They make the inevitable onslaught of guitars and drums that appears seemingly out of nowhere — though in reality, you can see coming from miles away — all the more rewarding, delightful, and even unexpected.

Indeed, for an album that nears the 70 minute mark and contains songs that routinely pass 10 minutes, there’s not really any filler. Each and every part of Hymn to the Immortal Wind — every searing, distortion-laden guitar riff, every pummeled drum, every evocative string arrangement — is essential; none of it is wasted.

As a result, the entire album becomes essential, or at least it has for me. By crafting a rich tapestry of sound that builds on familiar foundations and yet engenders such powerful emotional responses, by writing music that plumbs the depths of darkness and chaos even as it strains for brilliant heights, Mono has crafted a beautiful and stirring album, a true soundtrack for our troubled times.

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