On the surface the pairing of Japan’s finest post-rock band and one of the leading lights of the current boom in Scottish rock isn’t a terribly obvious choice, although it’s not vastly different from the touring the Twilight Sad has done with the closer-to-home Mogwai. But certainly, Twilight Sad and MONO both traffic in similar extremes of volume and emotion. Most of the Twilight Sad’s songs sound like standing in a jet engine, except they also make you want to bang your head and feel bad about your life choices at the same time. They have one of the most unjustly unheralded rhythm sections in rock today; the drums are always more complex and surprising than you’d expect for these otherwise straightforward songs, and the bass remains the hidden, racing pulse of their music. When you add to that rhythm section a, well, melody section straight out of a top-notch shoegaze band and a singer with the finest grasp of emotional/social brutality since David Gedge first flourished, it’s a heady mix.
Their set drew equally on already-kind-of-classic debut Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters and last year’s Forget the Night Ahead, but as fierce and moving as the Twilight Sad were throughout it was only the closing duo of the scouring, apocalyptic “I’m Taking the Train Home” and the live arrangement of “Cold Days From the Birdhouse” with its eerily quiet, ticking time bomb introduction that truly showed them at their best. Although the Twilight Sad have acquitted themselves very well each time I’ve seen them as an opening act, I’d love to see how great they can be when given the headlining spot.
Truly loud bands work through exhaustion, in both senses of the phrase. MONO only got through nine songs in about ninety minutes, and after the frankly stunning “Ashes in the Snow” that began their set I completely lost track of what was being played. With bands like this, if they know what they’re doing, you always have about half an hour where they’re clearly amazing, followed by at least another half an hour of diminishing returns. The brutal majesty of their compositions, the way each crests into an explosive crescendo, goes from being awe-inspiring to punishing; after a while, you feel like you’re living on a bombing range. You still enjoy yourself, but by the end of every song you find yourself hoping that they’re done. Surely you’ve been here for hours? Surely your ears are already hamburger? Surely they don’t have another insanely powerful height to hit?
As with all really good examples of the form, the second half of the show took on the quality of an ordeal. Like a joke that’s funny once, not funny after five times and hilarious fifty tellings later, MONO just keep going until your expectations and ears are reordered. For whatever reason (deliberate effect? language barrier?), they’re a little more foreboding than most. There are no vocal mics on the stage, very little in the way of breaks between tracks, and absolutely no mercy for audience members who didn’t know what they were getting into; just a genial, bearded drummer, a tiny bass player wearing a dress that looks like an haute couture version of the Paper Bag Princess, and two skinny guys all in black with hair in their eyes who sit on their stools in front of big spreads of effects pedals playing guitar until they need to really rock out, at which point the stools are kicked away (until the song is over). Sometimes they manipulate feedback until it’s just screaming digital noise; sometimes they play beautiful, heart-wrenching melodies at earsplitting volumes. At one point there’s an apparently impromptu doom metal interlude. The mixing throughout is phenomenal; too often this kind of music just results in one indistinct barrage of sound but even at their most intense you can always hear the bass thrumming away, or the surprisingly intricate melody the lead guitarist is playing.
With such an elemental setup and a complete lack of sonic variation (they may be touring to support a live record where they play with an orchestra, but other than their intro music there’s no hint of that side of the band here), MONO would probably be insufferable if they were even slightly less good. As it is, this is a band with sufficient mastery of their sound that one song, despite getting just as loud and explosive as every other one does, manages to sound meditative throughout just because the drummer was using brushes. MONO live are the kind of overwhelming, grueling, faintly-ridiculous-if-it-wasn’t-so-awesome spectacle that gives guitar music a good name. For those that can stand the ordeal, the feeling of catharsis when it was all over was massive. Probably the best way to describe the live experience is this realization: all evening long, there was a giant gong set up next to the drummer’s kit. When he finally hit the gong, no one in the audience could hear it.