M M & M’s 100 from the noughties – 2005

Perhaps it’s an indication of how the internet was breaking down national barriers and making it easier to hear stuff from all over the globe, or perhaps it’s just happenstance, but my ten for 2005 includes artists from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the UK.

BOOKS – Lost and Safe (Tomlab)
Some found the addition of vocals to the (so far) most recent Books album distracting, but I thought it added an extra dimension to the New York duo’s playful electronic folk.

DIRTY THREE – Cinder (Bella Union)
A great sprawling 19 track collection from the trio saw them exploring many areas that had lain untouched before, including two tunes with guest singers Cat Power and Sally Timms. The power remains undimmed. It always seems like messrs. White, Turner and Ellis are all playing in their own bubbles, and yet the results never seem awkward or dissonant.

KRAFTWERK – Minimum-Maximum (EMI)
With a group as precise as Kraftwerk, you’d have thought a live album would be a bit pointless. But Minimum-Maximum shows off gleamingly retooled, and in some cases completely remodelled, takes on the classics, as well as punchier versions of the Tour de France Soundtracks material. If you just wanted one Kraftwerk album (and I don’t know why you would), I’d say that this was almost a perfect primer.

MONO / WORLD’S END GIRLFRIEND – Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain (Human Highway)
“Full of sound and fury; signifying nothing”. That quote from Macbeth would sum up the opinions of Mono’s critics, and I do have some sympathy. The thing is, the sound and fury is just so damn gorgeous and exciting! Katsuhiko Maeda’s contribution to the band added a new neo-classical element to the sound – one which they would push even further.

MURCOF – Remembranza (Leaf)
Album number three from the Mexican genius, and the brew of dark beats and classical samples was as heady and intoxicating as ever.

NATIONAL – Alligator (Beggars Banquet)
The National’s breakout album. Simply a collection of brilliant, uplifting songs dominated by Matt Berninger’s desperate baritone. It climaxes with “Mr November”, one of the most cathartic songs I’ve ever heard.

BJ NILSEN – Fade to White (Touch)
Props to Scott at Mapsadaisical whose glowing testimony led me to check out Benny Nilsen’s music. “Fade to White” is essentially an ambient drone collection, but the somnambulant drift is punctured by moments of terrific sonic violence.

PORT-ROYAL – Flares (Resonant)
This came out of nowhere. A collection of instrumental rock and electronic atmospheres that verges between heady post-rave to serene ambience and holds the interest throughout. It’s still an album I play fairly frequently, and can pick up new nuances every time.

SHINING – In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster (Rune Grammofon)
Try sticking this in a pigeonhole. Avant-prog-jazz-metal? There’s nothing Shining like more than twisting your expectations into knots. Oh, and battering you over the head with a sound like a runaway train. Not that they don’t do subtlety too. Genuinely exciting music.

VEX’D – Degenerate (Planet Mu)
Disc one is the album proper, disc two a collection of singles, but it works perfectly well as a whole. Dark, creaking monstrous dubstep with skeleton rattling bass frequencies. The balance of the rhythms seems so precarious, like the whoosh you get in your head when you stand up too quickly.

Gig: MONO (Glasgow Stereo, 23/3/09)

Okay, so it’s a formula – but then so were the classic songs of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Japanese quartet Mono do adhere to a rough template. Start gently, contemplative; build gracefully (or sometimes explode unexpectedly); and climax in a crescendo of noise. They’re not alone in doing so, either – it’s become a guitar-based, instrumental post-rock cliché. What they do have that sets them apart is a strong gift for melody. This never deserts them, even when they are in the heart of the maelstrom. As sheets of white noise engulf everything, there is always some gorgeous tune at its centre.

The last time I saw the band was at ATP in Minehead last year. They had the unenviable task of playing the first afternoon, when everybody was settling in, reacquainting themselves with old friends and generally jabbering away excitedly. In the cavernous upper bar, they got somewhat lost in all the hubbub. Playing a club like Stereo, packed to the rafters and with an atmosphere akin to a steam room, they were in their element. Even if the quiet sections were often almost overwhelmed by the venue’s noisy air con.

The new album, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, is a work on a huge scale. It’s fully orchestrated and has a tendency towards bombast. When I reviewed it, I thought it huge fun, but possibly not the sort of record that would continue to reward repeated plays. A month or so on, it still sounds exhilarating. I did wonder, though, how it would translate live, sans orchestra. As it turned out, exceptionally well.

Tonight’s set began with the first four tracks of the record and ended with its closer, with just a couple of old tunes chucked in for good measure. It sounded absolutely brilliant. The quiet bits lost none of their grace and subtlety, and the climaxes were colossal. They played for ninety minutes, but it seemed like half that. Wearing a critical hat, it could be argued that every tune signposted its direction, but I tossed my critical hat away about five minutes in and surrendered myself gleefully to the feast of aural delights. This was a band who were absolutely at ease with what they do best and who were in stunning form. The Lionel Messi’s of post-rock, perhaps.

Album: MONO – Hymn to the Immortal Wind (Temporary Residence TRR148 2009)

mono

There are ten cellists featured on this album.

Japanese quartet Mono have never been afraid of sounding big. But even by their standards, Hymn to the Immortal Wind is monumental. Five of the seven tracks comfortably pass the ten minute mark, and each of those has at least one soaring, noisy climax. But is it all bluster and braggadocio, ultimately signifying nothing?

“Ashes in the Snow” begins matters with static hiss and a gently chiming guitar figure. The orchestration is subtle, adding timbre and colour, as the track wends its way towards the inevitable epic finale. It’s like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most majestic. “Burial At Sea” has a vaguely European feel to it, from its Fado-like guitar intro to its sweeping, melodramatic dénouement.

The orchestra comes into its own on “Silent Fight, Sleeping Dawn”. The guitars are largely absent on a piece where the emphasis is on a lush romanticism. “Pure As Snow” is redolent of Mogwai at their most elegaic, culminating in a great maelstrom of noise. “Follow the Map” may be brief by the standards of the album, but the intensity is undimmed. It sounds like the closing titles of an epic, romantic movie, the hero and heroine riding into the sunset, with all obstacles cleared and all foes vanquished.

“The Battle to Heaven” is the only track where the formula gets a bit threadbare. It simply doesn’t engage the senses like the rest of the tunes. Traditionally, the last track on a record is the big finale. But how do you top everything that’s gone before? Well, “Everlasting Light” manages just that. It starts like a piano concerto, with soaring strings and a plaintive keyboard figure, before the guitars rise up slowly out of the mix. Six minutes in, it explodes into a riot of sound. Not to be outdone by the guitars, the orchestra mounts a counter-offensive with the string section giving their all. It couldn’t sound any bigger without the use of cannons. And yet there is an almost hymnal quality to it.

It’s easy to stand back and sneer at the audacity of the band. The music largely follows well-worn structures, with slow builds and big finishes. There’s nothing understated about the record. Everything is larger than life. Ultimately, though, the record is a huge success, because it lifts the spirits. Like Wagner’s operas or Mahler’s later symphonies, the scale is colossal. The listener is engulfed in its presence, and gets swept along. For an hour or so, there is something heroic going on. And everyone needs to feel like a hero sometimes, don’t they?

Tracks
1 Ashes in the Snow 11:45
2 Burial at Sea 10:38
3 Silent Fight, Sleeping Dawn 6:00
4 Pure as Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm) 11:25
5 Follow the Map 3:55
6 The Battle to Heaven 12:51
7 Everlasting Light 10:23

Websites
www.mono-jpn.com

This review also appears on the [SIC] Magazine website.

Album: MONO – Gone (Temporary Residence / Human Highway 2007)

monogone.jpg

Tokyo quartet Mono started out as all-too-obvious Mogwai acolytes, but as the years have passed, they have become increasingly accomplished, with a brand of orchestral rock fusion that is entirely their own. They’ve been pretty prolific, racking up seven albums (including the stunning Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain, a collaboration with World’s End Girlfriend) since their 2001 debut Under The Pipal Tree.

Gone is a ten track collection that rounds up various non album tracks from the past seven years. It opens with a pair of cuts from Mono’s debut release – a limited run four track EP called Hey You that was issued in Japan in September 2000. Both “Finlandia” (not the Sibelius composition) and “Black Woods” are accomplished, if fairly derivative, takes on the quiet-loud dynamic. What they lack in originality, they make up for in spirit and ear-battering excitement.

“Yearning” is taken from a 2005 split twelve inch with Chicago epic hardcore act Pelican. It’s the longest thing here at more than fifteen minutes and benefits from the Steve Albini fairy dust that gives it a primal, earthy grit. It also acts as a kind of epic summary of the first stage of the band’s career. The seven later tracks on Gone all feature a string quintet or octet alongside the core quartet. Memorie Dal Futuro was a two song ten inch released in 2006 by the Vinyl Films label, and limited to 1000 black vinyl pressings, 500 white and 500 clear. The title track is a Godspeed-like blend of strings and guitars with the inevitable epic build. “Due Foglie, Una Candella: Il Soffio Del Vento” (two leaves, a candle: a breath of wind) from the same EP is a short, brooding piece – as is the lovely “Since I’ve Been Waiting For You”, originally recorded for a compilation album called Thankful.

The rest of Gone is comprised of the four tunes from The Phoenix Tree EP which came out last spring. “Gone”, the track that gives the album its title, is constructed like an overture. It has a simple refrain repeated and layered until it ends with an unexpected key change and fades into “Black Rain”, a beautiful, understated piece which, unusually for Mono, features vocals – a monologue in Italian spoken by Giovanna Cacciola. The band doesn’t appear on “Rainbow”, a short piece for the string section alone. Everything is rounded off with one of the group’s finest compositions, “Little Boy (1945-Future)”, which goes from a pretty music box melody to a crescendo of feedback over nine minutes.

Unlike most odds and sods type compilations, Gone works very well as a coherent album. It helps that Mono don’t seem to be the sort of band who are content to donate their cast-offs for EP projects and compilations, but come up with something especially for the occasion. It means that this is an album devoid of filler and one that stands well in comparison to any of their studio works.

Tracks
1 Finlandia (8:07)
2 Black Woods (11:22)
3 Yearning (15:37)
4 Memorie Dal Futuro (9:38)
5 Due Foglie, Una Candela : Il Soffio Del Vento (3:47)
6 Since I’ve Been Waiting For You (2:51)
7 Gone (4:07)
8 Black Rain (9:17)
9 Rainbow (2:23)
10 Little Boy (1945 – Future) (9:28)

Website
www.mono-jpn.com

Gig: Mono / Jesu – Oran Mor, Glasgow, 16/11/2007

I’d not seen Jesu live before, but it would be unfair to form an opinion based on tonight. Things started well enough with a spirited run through “Silver”, but the set soon became mired in technical problems. There were long gaps while Justin Broadrick fiddled with his amp and/or laptop, and when they were playing, the sound was pretty gruesome with virtually inaudible vocals. Even allowing for the problems, though, I wasn’t especially impressed. The subtleties in the records were lost amongst the snails-pace riffing and bludgeoned beats. At times it sounded like Swans circa Children of God, but the drums were way too high in the mix, and the relentless cymbal hiss just did my head in.

Mono appeared to be using different amps. Their sound was clean and clear. When I last saw them two years ago, they seemed just a bit too beholden to Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor for their own good. Nothing really stood out that night. Tonight was different, and they were very impressive indeed. A typical Mono tune is long. It starts out quietly and builds. After a couple of foothills, it reaches a peak with a noisy, cinematic climax, has a brief quiet coda and finishes. Not everything follows the same formula, but it isn’t varied that much. They do, however, have some glorious tunes. Unlike Mogwai, they don’t have the tendency to end each piece in blankets of white noise – preferring instead not to sacrifice melody for volume. It’s music that is easy to get swept along by – by turns melancholic and euphoric. They played just over an hour and then were gone. No encores, no speeches, just polite bows and a rapid exit.

Much as I enjoyed them tonight, it would be good to hear them incorporating the strings that characterize their later records in their live sets (I realise that cost is a factor). And I’d love to see a live collaboration with World’s End Girlfriend and string section along the lines of the Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain album.