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