The Myth of MONO

mono-japanJapanese people are like cats. I mean that in the best way possible.

MONO are a highly acclaimed, four-piece  band from Japan. They have been around for 10 years. Their style follows a pretty uniform template: beautiful, long, repetitive, slow, quiet buildups to crazy climaxes that sound like how standing underneath a waterfall feels. It is a style that lulls you into a false sense of security, lurking until it lures you into utter abandon. For lack of a better term, MONO have generally been lumped into the Post-Rock genre, an ineffable classification most often associated with the Chicago group Tortoise. In order to better label their sound, we should not refer to MONO as Post-Rock anymore. Due to its esoteric quality their music should be hereafter referred to as Ghost-Rock.

MONO have created five full-length albums in ten years of existence; many of them recorded with the legendary Steve Albini, like their most recent, “Hymn to the Immortal Wind”. A full orchestra augments MONO’s sound on this effort. It is compelling, poised, nuanced, cinematic, majestic music. There are no lyrics to spoil the mystery. “Hymn to the Immortal Wind” is not for the faint of heart or those with short of attention spans. The album leads you on a journey, following a path parallel to a childhood duo on a sojourn into the land of death. It evokes the symbols of change, movement, and rebirth. However, the meaning of these symbols is left to you. The music unfolds like a slow ritual of pain, acknowledgment, and rebirth.

MONO, like many Japanese artists and people,  are in tune with the spirit world, the shadow lands. The Shinto faith has a myriad of kami, spirits that inhabit the world alongside living humans. These spirits can be benign or terrifying, sober or pranksterish. Inanimate objects over one hundred years of age can become kami, as can national heroes, the pitiable dead, rocks, rivers, mountains, and even the concept of growth (amongst other concepts). Their spirit pantheon stretches to 8 million. In Shinto, eight million means infinity.

That’s how we come back to cats. If you have been around cats, surely you know that cats are more attuned to the spirit world than other life forms. A cat can be sitting in a silent room and then stare intently at something. Well, nothing, really. They will freak out when there is seemingly nothing around them. This behavior is a universally shared phenomenon among cat owners. With a little help from MONO, I have now realized that it’s not nothing. It’s what many people cannot see or refuse to acknowledge, ghosts.

I have recently been re-reading Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” in conjunction with listening to “Hymn to the Immortal Wind”. It is a fine juxtaposition. “Kafka on the Shore” exudes an innate sadness that merges perfectly with MONO’s dirges. The two main characters in the book, Kafka Tamura and the man-child Nakata are both haunted by their childhoods, as well as by histories that might not have played out in this world. Kafka interacts with the 15 year-old ghost of a woman that may or may not be his mother, with whom he is also in love. Nakata speaks to cats, until they ultimately drive him to kill a man assuming the persona of Johnnie Walker, Kafka’s father, sending him on a journey. The two plotlines intertwine and by the end everything is changed.

“Eventually you fall asleep. And when you wake up…you are part of a brand new world.”

The magical realist style that Murakami employs is typical of Japanese art and lends itself to the impression that anything can happen if we are attuned to the world just beyond, the land of ghosts.

These spectral elements are also present in “Hymn to the Immortal Wind”. The opening track, “Ashes in the Snow”, introduces us to death as a dance that gradually reduces everything to dust, life’s common denominator. However, by the end of the song, the dust has coalesced into something else, a momentous transformation that leads to “Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn”, the passage to the Shadow Lands. This is no place. We wander through the invisible everything searching for reclamation. We come to rest in a “Burial at Sea”. But then something happens that recalls us to our search. We “Follow the Map”, learning from souls “Pure as Snow”. We know that we have discovered something when dancing in a shaft of “Everlasting Light”. Finally, we are fortified, ready to wage the “Battle to Heaven”. And the outcome of this battle is…

You decide. Listen to “Hymn to the Immortal Wind” and you will inevitably fulfill the band’s stated goal, “to make people feel.” Experience MONO’s Ghost-Rock in person on November 27th at MAO Livehouse. It should be a momentous show. By the way, I have read that some of the members of MONO might sit down during the show and that they don’t speak to or acknowledge their audiences often. They are focused solely on the flawless execution of their art. So keep that in mind.

And leave the cats at home.

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