Stirring instrumentalists MONO examine birth, death, damnation on drama-rich ‘Requiem for Hell’

Photo by Mitja Kobal

Photo by Mitja Kobal

One of the most dramatic heavy music experiences I ever had was in some random classroom at Carnegie Mellon University several years ago. It certainly felt like a place far more suited for a lecture than an experience that would have my ears ringing for days on end, but it certainly stands out from the hundreds of shows I’ve ever attended.

The headliners that night were Japanese instrumental force MONO, and they were touring in support of their amazing 2006 album “You Are There.” I remember leaving that spring night absolutely stunned at what I’d just witnessed. The force the band packed that evening could have leveled a hall of any size, yet here I was, halfway up the stadium seat-style classroom completely mesmerized by their sound, expression, and massive weight. I already was a major fan of the band before that night, but I came out of there practically a zealot. From that album forward, I’ve followed MONO very closely, and from release to release, they always felt like they were taking a new path toward my psyche. That carries over to their new, ninth record “Requiem for Hell,” an album that stays faithful to their cinematic wonders but also mixes in several thick stripes of darkness.

mono-coverLike every MONO record, the messages and themes of the songs aren’t immediately apparent since their work is wordless. But the themes of life and love, death and darkness certainly are present, even if they’re carried on the waves of musical passages and not words. The five songs, inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” have sections of gentle reflection and shadowy tranquility. But there are other areas where MONO are at their heaviest and most terrifying, patching you into their creative juices that were overflowing while making this record. Reuniting with producer Steve Albini, the band—lead guitarist Takaakira “Taka” Goto, rhythm guitarist Hideki “Yoda” Suematsu, bassist/keyboard player Tamaki Kunishi, drummer/synth player Yasunori Takada—channeled all of their energy and blood into these cuts that never skimp on the drama and keep you plugged in from beginning to crushing end.

The album begins with “Death in Rebirth,” where dark guitars strike, and melodies fold over like relentless black waves. The song feels like as dark storm creeping over the horizon—that’s literally happening outside as I write this—and as things go on, the volume and intensity rise, and we’re at the threshold. Noise wells up and begins scarring, and then the song fades as it is eclipsed by thick clouds. “Stellar” has morose strings, chimes joining in, and static bubbling up like a swarm of insects. As the song spreads, it remains understated, like a quiet snow endlessly but silently coating the ground. Its beauty is a sight to behold, but its strength is not to be underestimated. The 17:48-long title track follows, with guitars slowly breaking from their icy grave, and glockenspiel dropping needles. Guitars and the pace pick up about five minutes in, with the melodies spiraling into the atmosphere, and an ominous stretch choking the sun. The track gets more aggressive, as if the danger you feared is right around the bend, and from there, everything is whipped into a tornado of sound and power, as the guitars catch fire and combine for a cataclysmic ending.

“Ely’s Heartbeat” is a song inspired a close friend’s (Temporary Residence owner Jeremy deVine) first foray into parenthood, as the in utero heartbeat actually are the sounds that greet you and serve as the driving center point for the song. This is where things brighten for the band, as the embrace of new life is at its apex. Here, sounds overwhelm as elegant guitars build steam and spill into an effusive onslaught of gazey guitar work that has become a MONO trademark. It’s utterly gorgeous and infectious, as the song continues to roll through the void, and beauty and sorrow collide to create a final drama-rich burst. Closer “The Last Scene” not only is fittingly named because it’s the final cut but also because its ambiance feels like a final credit roller. Guitars bubble while weird tones make themselves apparent. Piano splashes into huge displays of heart-gushing guitar, while a breezy, wonderfully atmospheric cloud break lets moody sunbeams strike the ground as you awake from your dream infused by what it is you just witnessed.

MONO have become one of the standard bearers for instrumental rock, and their career one day should have the “legendary” status attached to it. “Requiem for Hell” is one of the records that will help get them there, a collection that proves a decade and a half after their formation, they still have the energy and passion flowing in their veins. I doubt MONO have any suburban classrooms on their tour schedule now, but whatever room they’re in, they’re bound to fill it with chaos and change lives.

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