MONO are a band that excel at providing a mood. Their pieces are not so much traditional “songs” as they are evocations of dreams, emotions, and fears. Eschewing traditional song structure in favor of something resembling post-rock-leaning film scores, their sound can be a gentle whisper one moment and a thunderous wail the next. Needless to say, this band offers up transcendental live experiences, and a show recorded at more than a year ago is the subject of their latest album, Beyond the Past: Live in London with the Platinum Anniversary Orchestra.
MONO recorded this album in December 2019 – commemorating their 20th anniversary – at London’s Barbican Centre in front of an audience of 2,000 and accompanied the ten-piece National Youth String Orchestra (conducted by Damian Iorio). Opening the show were sets by Japanese bands Boris and Envy, French post-black metal band Alcest, London-based cellist, and composer Jo Quail, and British death-gospel singer A.A. Williams. With those acclaimed acts priming the crowd, the quartet – Takaakida Goto and Hideki Suematsu on guitar, Dahm Majuri Cipolla on drums, and Tamaki Kunishi on bass – made their way to the stage to the gorgeous, melancholic sounds of the orchestra’s opening theme, “God Bless”.
From this point on, MONO comes out swinging. “After You Comes the Flood” is chock full of thunderous, muscular drum fills as the band assaults the crowd with wave after wave of heavy chords and plaintive, distorted guitar squalls. The audience gets a cool-down period with the slower, gentler – yet still emotionally intense – “Breathe”, featuring a rare vocal appearance by Kunishi and the warmth of the orchestra substituting beautifully for the studio version’s synthesizers. This kind of chiaroscuro has been the band’s stock-in-trade for the past two decades, and having the additional musicians back them up allows this four-piece outfit to truly expand their sound and dig deep into the emotional punch their music provides.
The music on Beyond the Past often comes in waves, and it also can build up slowly and methodically. “Death in Rebirth” opens with chugging electric guitar chords before the rest of the band joins in alongside Cipolla’s insistent beat, and the tempo gradually increases as the music churns away before collapsing in an explosion of distortion and sonic rubble. But on other songs, like “Dream Odyssey”, MONO hold back with a slower, piano-based melody and tempo, and even when a brief, swirling, cacophonous middle section crashes in, an elegant string coda closes things out beautifully.
“Ashes in the Snow”, one of the album’s strongest moments – and the epic opening track of their 2009 studio album Hymn to the Immortal Wind – deftly combines the low-key, almost lullaby qualities of the band’s sound (particularly the opening glockenspiel) with sweeping orchestral flourishes. The string section, meshing with the white-noise distortion of the guitars, provides some of the album’s most breathtaking moments.
Some of the songs include brief guest appearances by the support acts, as Quail lends cello to “Halcyon (Beautiful Days)”, “Exit in Darkness”, and “Com(?)”, and Williams adds cello to “Com(?)” and vocals and piano on “Exit in Darkness”. Having additional firepower on the closing “Com(?)” is fitting as the nearly-20-minute track closes Beyond the Past on a particularly anthemic note, with the quiet and cacophonous moments battling it out and all the musicians seemingly going for broke. It’s almost as if everyone involved knew that a global pandemic would shut down concert venues a mere three months later.
The music on this stunning, eloquent, emotionally gut-busting album is not only a fitting audio souvenir of MONO’s 20th anniversary. It’s also a reminder of the power of live music and how welcome it will be once it becomes part of our everyday lives again.