The cover art of You Are There, the fourth album (not counting various collaborations) from Japan’s MONO, could well be responsible for the mental images evoked by the music that the album contains. Using a palette of mostly primary colors, there is depicted a scene of soft, gentle snow descending on a forest, behind which stark, grey mountains cover up something which could be aurora borealis, a sunset, or the glow of far-off explosions and warfare. It’s a literal depiction of the title of You Are There‘s first track, “The Flames Beyond the Cold Mountains”, but it’s the snow that leaves the lasting impression. There are no swirls in the snow to speak of, no bending of the trees to indicate a single breath of wind, no indication of any sound at all in the foreground, past the exceedingly gentle patter of snow landing on snow. It is all indicative of a perfect serenity, albeit an unstable one, ready to be broken by either the distant disturbance or even the smallest change in the weather.
And despite the implications of a title like “The Flames Beyond the Cold Mountains”, the music contained within You Are There moves much more like the weather than any man-made occurrence.
This is no knock to MONO. If there’s one thing we’ve learned as a global community over the last year or two, it’s that weather can be as powerful as an act of terror, as willing to destroy us as it is to peacefully caress us. That dichotomy is made clear throughout the album, which consists of four tracks that break the ten-minute barrier and two that don’t even reach four. As there is very little of the dynamic contrast of the rest of the album in those two shorter tracks, it’s difficult to see them as much more than transitional bits, present for the sake of providing respite in between the longer, more developed pieces. That is, it would be difficult, if this weren’t the new MONO, a MONO whose studio incarnation can finally step out of the shadow of its live performances, one where the precise musicality that a studio performance can bring measures up to the total enveloping mind-melt of live noise.
Those two tracks are called “A Heart Has Asked for the Pleasure” and “The Remains of the Day”, and they stand as some of the most melodically accomplished work that MONO has of yet released. These are slow pieces with long, extended, drone-like passages and no drums to speak of, but “A Heart Has Asked for the Pleasure” is a study in texturing, with long passages built from quickly plucked guitar strings, and “The Remains of the Day” adds piano to the mix for some extra melody. They are lovely.
Still, it is in the longer tracks that the members of MONO demonstrate what they are truly capable of. “Yearning” is the strongest (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the longest) of the more developed tracks. It starts as pretty much every song on You Are There starts, with nothing. Slowly, quiet guitar melodies appear, soon augmented by bass for extra support, not to mention a source of melodic counterpoint. The drums make their way in next, mostly in the form of a ride cymbal that rides and rides, eventually ushering in a subtle, single violin. The build continues as the guitars become louder, strumming as much as they pluck, until just as it sounds ready to explode, it all but cuts out, leaving a single guitar to play a quiet, repeated motif for a few seconds. This eye of the storm is followed quickly by the explosion—the drums are playing a rock beat, now, the guitars have become distorted, the bass is strumming minor-key chords (sounding vaguely like one of Tool’s more sinister moments), waves are crashing, trees are being ripped apart, entire buildings demolished by the force.
And then, the violin once more, as if to emphasize the human emotion, the fear and sadness prevalent amidst this disastrous demonstration of power.
The other 10-minute-plus tracks on You Are There go through similar development cycles, with closing track “Moonlight” most notable for its insistence on maintaining a lovely melodic structure even as the instruments get louder and the noise takes over. What MONO has done is written poetry without words, perhaps a cliché of a description, but one that fits. Through their increased musical sense, a mastery of ebb and flow, and the knowledge of how all of those things can work together through dynamic contrast, MONO has given us an aural depiction of natural disaster (and the comparative serenity surrounding it) through a very human viewpoint. Devastating and exquisite, You Are There is the pinnacle of MONO’s discography thus far, topped only to this point by the theoretical execution of these songs in a live setting. Ah, to dream.