Over a lifespan nearing its third decade, Mono have always tackled dualities from the most grand to the most human: heaven and hell, conflict and calm, presence and absence. Their music has mirrored these concepts: roars and whispers; marathons and strolls; smiles and sorrows. It is a sound as colossal and steadfast as the band itself – an entity of glacial evolution that, while rarely exciting in recent years, is prolific, reliable and comforting.
Titled with typically elegant simplicity, Nowhere Now Here marks the next phase of that evolution, broadly no more marked than across any of their previous nine albums. But this time, the changes while small in sonic contribution feel like symbolic landmarks. Electronics. More brass. A new drummer. Vocals! Over six minutes into “Sorrow”, we hear a synthesized arpeggio emerging from the squall of distorted guitars and frothing cymbals, and it alone remains when the band falls silent two minutes later. At their loudest, Mono have always conveyed nature at her most grounded and violent; by incorporating electronics, the wall of sound becomes airborne – winds become solar, storms geomagnetic.
Brass carries a greater emphasis than ever before, from the sedate drones layering “Nowhere, Now Here” to the harmonised threnody of “Funeral Song”. But let’s talk about that most surprising of changes. Soon after the gentle synth swells of “Breathe” commence, we hear singing. It is the voice of bassist Tamaki, her vocal fragile but with quiet confidence, in accented English. She continues for minutes into the short piece, words gently parting the hazey electronics. After 18 years of wordless output, the track is striking.
“Breathe” comes early in the set, but the band have already massaged those yearning the comfortable and familiar. They should be plenty satiated. First track proper “After You Comes the Flood” is vintage Mono, its crashing drums and crunching yet sombre guitar lines crescendoing in some jarring harmonics that even harken back to 2001’s Under the Pipal Tree. Further on, “Nowhere, Now Here” labours over its ascent, the drums – from the band’s first ever replacement member – constantly shifting the trajectory of the ascending guitars and strings. Just when you think the peak will elude them, it arrives, more up-tempo than you may have thought. The same is true for the glorious “Meet Us Where the Night Ends”, the highlight of the set whose first four minutes carry a pulse exchanged between looping guitar parts and constantly shifting drums. The groove is infectious, the tone sanguine and the instrumental development superbly constructed.
Beside those most evolved and those most traditional are a handful of relatively concise pieces that explore between the extreme dualities on which Mono have built their career. “Far and Further” is a delicate guitar-loop-based piece whose eventual plodding drum pattern is in no danger of stirring, while colourful orchestration dominates the piano-based and bittersweet “Parting”. In a former incarnation, wistful closer “Vanishing, Vanishing Maybe” would have erupted several minutes into its languid rhythms and lyrical melodies; here it just fades away.
In many ways playing catch-up with fellow stalwarts in the post-rock/composition space, Mono have nonetheless managed to incorporate new textures and structures without impinging on their core. Amid drama, beauty and tragedy, between expectation and catharsis, new seeds have been sown. I doubt that the trio ever felt that they had lost their way, but this wonderful record conveys a group newly focused, newly inspired.
2018 was a quiet year for post-rock. 2019 has started with a bang – just a slightly quieter one than you may have expected. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)