MONO 2024
Photo: Dannesh Moosa / EarthQuaker Devices / Temporary Residence Ltd.

MONO Recommit with Life-Affirming ‘Oath’

MONO return with a post-rock album about faith and commitment, which serves as a fitting epitaph for their long-term artistic collaboration with Steve Albini.

Temporary Residence Ltd.
14 June 2024

Among the many tributes that circulated online following the sudden passing of Steve Albini was an Instagram post by MONO, the Japanese post-rock outfit. “R.I.P., our hero. We took this photo just three weeks ago. We have worked together for 22 years,” the post plaintively stated. “We are very proud we created many albums together. Love you, Steve san, so much.” 

Founded in 1999, MONO – whose principal members have included Takaakira “Taka” Goto (guitars), Hideki “Yoda” Suematsu (guitars), Tamaki Kunishi (bass), Dahm Majuri Cipolla (drums), and Yasunori Takada (drums, 1999-2017) – has been a key player on the post-rock scene. During the past quarter century, they have released over a dozen studio albums, in addition to numerous EPs, live recordings, and other material. Albini helmed the boards for much of their work, including their new LP, Oath. As a consequence, listening to this new release conjures an unanticipated sense of melancholy, especially given the title theme of faith and commitment that organizes the affecting instrumental tracks at hand. 

For the record, MONO has often demurred from the post-rock label for their music. However, unlike, say, the candy punk of Shonen Knife and the noise collages of Boredoms, it is impossible to entirely disassociate MONO’s atmospheric, guitar-driven sound from global peers like Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and Explosions in the Sky. Indeed, the emergence of these bands in the late 1990s is a reminder of a prophetic statement made by Albini in a review of Slint‘s Spiderland published in Melody Maker in March 1991. “In ten years’ time, it will be a landmark and you’ll have to scramble to buy a copy then,” Albini wrote of the seminal post-rock album, identified as a founding statement of the genre. “Beat the rush,” he advised. 

Fulfilling Albini’s prediction, MONO’s early albums, like their debut, Under the Pipal Tree (2001), and their sophomore release, One Step More and You Die (2002), built upon the sonic grammar introduced by Slint and bands like Tortoise and Bitch Magnet with long, carefully composed instrumental tracks that took the spatial effects of distortion and delay pedals to new places. As noted, this terrain was shared. One could be forgiven for confusing songs like “A Speeding Car” from One Step More and You Die with those written by Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai. Still, MONO has never sounded derivative. Instead, their albums have contributed to a broader, collective effort of aesthetic worldbuilding within the post-rock scene. 

MONO’s third album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined (2004), marked their first collaboration with Albini, firmly establishing their sense of connection with the Louisville-Chicago musical axis. Unsurprisingly, traces of Albini can be heard with the raw drum parts – a characteristic of his recording process across many artists and albums. Tracks like “Ode” and “Lost Snow” display this signature feature. Beyond this aspect, the album extends further to utilize string arrangements on “2 Candles, 1 Wish” and piano on the concluding song, “A Thousand Paper Cranes”. The album is lush and austere, making the most of these instrumental additions through meticulous pacing and attention to the power of restraint.  

Twenty years later, MONO’s new album retains and expands upon these strengths. Oath is a culmination of long-term evolution and a commitment to a particular artistic ethos. The first three tracks – “Us, Then”, “Oath”, and “Then, Us” – form an opening triptych with each flowing into one another. Electronica, string arrangements, horns, and eventually guitars come into play, but only after 2:40 minutes into the title track. Like clockwork, the percussion comes in about a minute prior at 1:36, its blunt blows alerting you to the fact that Albini engineered this LP. As with many post-rock outfits, whether Slint or Explosions in the Sky, Cipolla’s forceful playing is indispensable for keeping MONO grounded. This opening sequence is slow building and cathartic by the end.

The remainder of Oath develops from this introductory foundation. At nine minutes, the outstanding fourth track, “Run On”, starts a provisional, second orchestral movement with competing tempos between an escalating string arrangement and faster-paced drums, creating a tension that is amplified and modulated by guitar distortion. It is gorgeous and among the best songs MONO has recorded. The track that follows, “Reflection”, pulls back with an introspective piano before launching once more into intensified sensory terrain, the drum part announcing this turn midway. And so forth: Oath comes in waves like this with melodic currents and emotional undertows that pull the listener in without letting go, at times overwhelming them, awash in percussion and reverb. 

MONO’s music has been called cinematic, and they have, in fact, recorded a formal soundtrack, My Story, The Buraku Story, released in 2022. However, this judgment holds true for this album as it has across their work. In the same way that “Auto Rock” and “We’re No Here” off Mogwai’s Mr Beast (2006) enhanced certain scenes in Michael Mann’s film version of Miami Vice (2006), one can easily imagine tracks from Oath performing a similarly vital role in a future Mann film. With its bristling emotional weight, “Run On” conjures the image of a protagonist racing down a Los Angeles highway at night to reach someone before a disaster unfolds.            

It appears that the idea behind Oath regards such personal commitment and the connections we make with other people. One can understand this record as MONO reaffirming its devotion to a certain style as well as to its audience. Yet the unexpected passing of Albini makes this theme even more poignant. This isn’t a lachrymose LP – “Hear the Wind Sing”, “We All Shine On”, and the title track are all passionately uplifting – though it comes close in this recent, unforeseen context. With mixed, bittersweet feelings, you listen with both a smile on your face and a lump in your throat. 

Maybe that is post-rock’s latent, almost imperceptible point. Though it can heighten and enrich ordinary experiences, music is ultimately an unspoken supplement to truly important elements, whether family, friendships, or other relationships. 

Recent photographs of Albini frequently showed him wearing a black MONO T-shirt. Oath is an unplanned epitaph for an artistic collaboration that produced life-giving work over the course of two decades. Though entirely wordless, it is difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute.

RATING 8 / 10