Music

MONO: Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Japanese post-rock practitioners add an orchestra, get predictable but remain effective.


MONO

Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Label: Temporary Residence Limited
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
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We’re not really still calling it post-rock, are we? At least the more cerebral, dissonant end of the genre picked up "math-rock" as a tag, a term with a little descriptive heft to it. In the wake of Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, a small but distinctive set of bands can be found whose music tends to exist somewhere between the distorted aggression of the former’s early work and the most retiring, string-kissed moments of the latter. Given the common fondness for lengthy track times, narrative or semi-narrative albums, occasional pomposity and technical skill, most of this music classifies as definitely, say, post-prog rock. But there’s no sense in which the comfortable little cul de sac these bands have found themselves in are post-anything in terms of moving forwards, and the most-popular acts tend to hammer on the “huge guitars = catharsis” button even more shamelessly than most rock bands, making the whole thing feel a bit retrograde as opposed to forward-looking.

For Japanese early adopters MONO, the band's earlier work tended more towards the pure-rock-fury end of the spectrum, and as late as 2006’s fine You Are There, the band seemed content to practice a particularly rigorous and satisfying example of the genre. As with all of their contemporaries, the point remained the crescendos and how effectively the band got you there, and while not as bracing or as distinct as their countrymen, Envy, MONO seemed able to follow their own formula indefinitely. But 2006 also saw the release of Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain, the collaboration with the Japanese musician World’s End Girlfriend (aka Katsuhiko Maeda). Although World’s End Girlfriend mixes electronics with post-rock on his solo albums, the album Maeda and MONO made together eschewed electronics entirely and even kept the roaring guitars in reserve for most of the record’s 74 minutes. An impeccably arranged small orchestra carried most of the weight of the music, often with a single clean electric guitar playing along. Aided by a profoundly touching guitar motif that winds its way throughout the album, the result is the most profoundly affecting post-rock effort since Mogwai’s astounding “My Father My King".

But where Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain was essentially an orchestral album with additional guitars, Hymn to the Immortal Wind finds Mono working with a bigger orchestra yet doing less with it. Part of the problem is that the band now seems content to just hammer the button marked “huge guitars + strings = catharsis". At the same time, from the brief cataclysms that close most of the songs here to the relentless prettiness and tastefulness on display the rest of the time, the release could pass for a new Explosions in the Sky disc, which would leave followers impressed they seemed to be getting more subtle with age. The five long tracks making up the bulk of Hymn to the Immortal Wind follow the predictable path of rise, fall and rise again in a way that scrupulously stays within the boundaries of the genre. Whereas a band like 65daysofstatic constantly pushes on those boundaries (for better or worse), Mono appear to be newly comfortable aiming for the most predictable and broadly satisfying kind of climaxes.

It doesn’t help that this album was composed with a hopeful, romantic narrative in mind. These days, it seems like that’s the only kind of story this type of swelling, oceanic music gets drafted to tell, and it’s getting a bit predictable. It’s hard to be too harsh on Mono or this album in particular, since what gets collected here is both effective and beautiful. But after the stirring, ten-minute epic “Ashes in the Snow” opens the album with an example of how MONO have gotten awfully good at augmenting their brawn with strings and woodwinds, it’s kind of a let down to have “Buried At Sea” run through the same tricks for roughly the same length immediately after. The result, like one of those spring-loaded cats always hiding in closets in horror movies, gets the desired effect, but you feel a little cheated afterwards.

The two shorter songs work better because each doesn't follow the normal plan as closely. “Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn” sounds a bit like the epic drift of Spiritualized’s “Broken Heart” sans vocals, and the brief “Follow the Map”, an almost absurdly cinematic piano-and-strings ballad, benefits immensely by the way massed guitars hover just above the end of the track, sounding liable to crush everything at any moment.

Aside from those two tracks and “Ashes in the Snow", which functions as a kind of platonic ideal of the kind of thing MONO have been doing with their guitars for a while now, the worth of the rest of Hymns to the Immortal Wind rests almost entirely on your commitment to the genre. Novices will be well served by it, and those with an endless appetite for this kind of widescreen, epic catharsis will find MONO still provides a satisfying brand of it. Those listeners in the middle may find that without anything making it stand out from the bulk of what we’re calling post-rock, Hymns to the Immortal Wind registers as another solid entry in a genre so consistent that merely solid entries aren’t enough to gain your love as well as your respect.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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