2021 is shaping up as a great year for MONO. After releasing a devastating double live album earlier this year, they’ve unveiled a pummeling post-rock opus. Pilgrimage of the Soul is loosely based on William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, a poem whose first four lines are familiar to most but is actually a lot longer ~ just like a post-rock song.
There’s no singing this time, but a different form of experimentation with raised tempos and integrated electronics. Not that this is noticed in first single and opening track “Riptide,” which boasts an outstanding melody and sub-melody, superb bass and drum work, and the sort of catchiness that may endear it not only to post-rock fans, but to those seeking a bit of bombast in their trailers and films. In short, it’s classic MONO on steroids. After this, the quietude of “Imperfect Things” may cause some to turn the volume knob, although that would be a mistake as things will soon get a lot louder again.
A large segment of fans wants to hear the same sort of music on new albums, while another large segment wants to hear something new. MONO has always tried to cater to both. This has resulted in some recent releases feeling a bit disjointed, but Pilgrimage of the Soul flows far better than any MONO album since Hymn to the Immortal Wind. We’re overjoyed that the orchestral elements are back, kept under wraps until the yearning “Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
The band has always incorporated spiritual themes in its music, but pandemic recording seems to have sparked a new unity. The last six tracks draw their titles from the same source:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
While rocking tracks such as “To See a World” seem the opposite of such poetry, revelation can be extremely loud. One key to thriving in a time of insecurity is to cherish the small and lovely: to be thankful for tiny treasures, fleeting moments and ephemeral experiences. Such perspectives are an integral part of Japanese culture. A small irony, likely unintentional, is that the album itself is approximately one hour long, and seeks to express eternity. When “Innocence” expands into the celestial realm, it does just that, producing the blend of euphoria and catharsis so familiar to long-time post-rock fans. Surprisingly, the piece then retreats from wide angle to macro vision, zeroing in on that flower. One remembers that those most likely to be fascinated by a grain of sand or a wild flower are children, the exemplars of innocence.
Throughout the set, the riffs are hung on a constant thread of melody. MONO has learned that not every track needs to be a Big Track, but that their heaviest pieces are sustained, even enhanced, by their most subtle. This being said, there are multiple Big Tracks here. Some, like “The Auguries,” sneak up on the listener, while others, like “Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand,” advertise themselves by their length. This particular piece includes The Return of the Glockenspiel, which should endear itself to anyone who has been with MONO for the bulk of its 22 years. It’s such a gorgeous track that we hope it isn’t accompanied by a video, as the mind is sufficient to conjure fabulous vistas. We all know that it will eventually explode, so when it does, we are more than satisfied; we are satiated. After this, the band wisely closes with a lullaby of piano and strings.
Now it’s time for a little perspective. Few bands last this long. Fewer still remain relevant. While many genres are kept alive by new infusions of blood, post-rock has been kept alive through the efforts of a handful of bands who have risen to the top and refuse to give up their seats. MONO’s constant evolution and reinvention have brought it well into its third decade (and technically second century). Pilgrimage of the Soul is not competing with other albums; it’s simply playing to its strengths, appealing to our spirits and in the process winning our hearts. (Richard Allen)