Though it seems contradictory to search for the ethereal in genres as utterly human-made as synthwave and video game soundtracks, there’s no shortage of modern artists doing just that and succeeding. Independent artists mainly drove the vaporwave craze that peaked a few years and showed a knack for transforming the accessible into something transcendent, playing with the opulent aesthetics of Tokyo city pop and the ease of modern technology to evoke an imagined past in creating the modern.
Taipei-based trio Mong Tong is of this decade-spanning ilk, making music that wavers like a well-played audio cassette and sounds like it belongs in the dramatic cutscenes of an early 1990s Capcom installment. On full-length debut Mystery, the group’s human members, brothers Hom Yu and Jiun Chi, put together seven tracks of a thick atmosphere, taking concrete media influences and creating something celestial. The trio’s third member is a noncorporeal computerized member, as they tell it — just as important a component in the creative process. The album sees them joining the Guruguru Brain label that serves as home to psych-rock group Kikagaku Moyo (two members of which founded the label).
Largely based around samples and synths, Mystery is nonetheless richly multi-instrumental. That is clear from the ornate “Intro” that opens the album, where Hom’s bass adds an urgent undertone to darkly ornate keys. The title track follows, and here, Chi’s guitar goes heavy on the wahs, sounding like back alleys and neon lights over a melody that sways upward. Both are equally important in driving forward the shimmering “Chakra”. Vintage vocal samples open ominous “Jou-tau”, on which the occasional soaring of synths cuts through the languid wailing of guitar.
After a tremendous opening buzz, “717” remains seductively psychedelic, a blissful flow of bass, keys, and gentle guitar. Fittingly cosmic are the broad echoes of “Ancient Mars”, set off by rain, winds, and metallic percussion. Reverb goes into overdrive on “A Nambra”, a smoky cut full of hand drums and luscious jingling. A storm brews on “In the K. Court”, the album’s closing track, as synths and guitars climb in unison to a hard-earned finish marked by a knock-out guitar sting.
Not only do Mong Tong build a world, but they also explore its depths in a profound, satisfying way. Mystery is a late 20th-century arcade fantasy, stark, vibrant, and retro all at once. The faint hints of static that make for such an effectively nostalgic soundscape also blur the lines between listening and experiencing – it’s easy to sink into the album’s unwritten storyline, which, illusory though it is, still seems to permeate every track.
In addition to the 1980s and 1990s synth sounds so clearly part of their music, the brothers of Mong Tong count occult art, vintage Taiwanese book covers, and doom metal among their influences. On Mystery, they weave every disparate piece together, creating an album that doubles as a sound-based cinematic universe, one romantically dystopian. The throwbacks are luxurious, the psychedelia indulgent, and the overall effect almost too much of a pleasure for those of us who grew up in moody worlds made up of no more than 256 colors’ worth of pixels.
At the same time, there are enough straightforward psych-rock elements to Mong Tong’s music that its appeal is broad enough to be worth a try regardless of video game experience level. This dimension is crucial: Mong Tong presents a strong point of view on Mystery, one that often feels extreme. It’s the technical skill the artists have with their instruments that gives flexibility to their powerfully realized vision and makes Mystery ultimately something that each person listening might understand in their own way.