MONO have been wordlessly confronting death for nearly two decades. The instrumental Japanese quartet's symphonic compositions work towards extremes, basking in shards of light when they stream through the windows, channeling the darkness when it engulfs them. It's often a barely-controlled chaos, the howl of a guitar sent out over thudding drums, the distortion a swirling mass sent out over swelling codas. They are, and have always been, unafraid of grandeur.
Their new album Requiem for Hell, premiering on Noisey today ahead of its October 14 release on Temporary Residence, has this dichotomy on show more clearly than ever. There's the controlled clatter of the album's title-track centrepiece, building from a quiet and solitary two-note riff, little cracks of pensive melodies gathering together, joined by a simple 8-beat. But eventually it gives way to bleakness, the lead guitar constantly pitching itself up, teetering on dissonance, flirting with chaos in its desperation.
But MONO do not only tend towards entropy. Listen to their 2001 debut Under The Pipal Tree, go back to any of their eight studio albums that precede Requiem for Hell, right through One More Step and You Die, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, and 2014's Rays of Darkness, and you'll find maps out of the darkness. Here, "Requiem for Hell" falls into "Ely's Heartbeat," a track that samples the heartbeat of a friend's child in utero, growing into its piano-led swells. It's an unabashed celebration of life and beauty, an all-encompassing piece of work that paints its affirmation in small details, but covers all of its canvas.
We spoke with the band's guitarist, Takaakira "Taka" Goto, via email to ask about the band's process and the experience of once again working with their long-time collaborator Steve Albini after seven years away. You can listen to Requiem for Hell below and read the interview after the jump.
Noisey: The band has a long and successful relationship with Steve Albini. What was it like to go back into the studio with him again?
Takaakira Goto: Just yesterday, we had a pre-listening session for the new album in Tokyo. We listened to them extremely loud and it was truly fantastic. It reminded us of how amazing Steve's sounds are. I'm not sure how to put it, but they take the listeners away to another world just as they should. I think it would be great if we could perform with sounds like that in live as well.
It's been 13 years or so since we recorded together with Steve for the first time. I feel as we all experienced and have grown a lot since then. After playing at his studio once again, we were all extremely eager to find out how we were going to feel our own music and how they turned out.
Actually, when we first played at Electrical Audio after a decade, I don't know, it almost felt like our core got revived; every cell in our bodies was happy. We took a lot of detours, but it made us feel that the sound we were looking for always existed right here. After we finished recording the album, we were reminded of how Steve is the world's best understanding person for MONO's music.
We always record like how we play live. In his recordings, you can hear our wordless, telepathic communications between four of us. It made us realize how this was something that we lost in our recent records, and how we have been searching for that for quite some time. It was an amazing recording session.
What triggered the decision to go work with Steve again?
We previously recorded three albums with Steve [2004's Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, 2006's You Are There, and 2009's Hymn to the Immortal Wind]. We hadn't said anything about this before, but it was actually our plan to record these three albums with Steve from the beginning. It was almost like a three-part plan. After recording Hymn…, as a new challenge, we recorded with different engineers. They were all fantastic, but in the studio, I always thought, "It probably would've sounded like this instead if we recorded with Steve" during our recording sessions, haha. Personally, I was thinking it would be great if we recorded another album with Steve for our 10th album or something like our 20 year anniversary.
Personally also, Beethoven's final Symphony No. 9 is one of the most important albums in my musical life, so I was a little conscious about how this will be our ninth album. Back in the day, there was this weird tradition that the 9th symphony would be the last of a Classical composer's life's work work. A lot of the composers actually passing away was one of the reasons, but if this was going to be the case, I definitely wanted Steve to record our last album.
While thinking about these things in 2015, Steve randomly contacted us. It was about Shellac's first Japan Tour in 22 years and if we would be interested in touring with them. Of course we took the offer right away, and at the same time, we asked him if he could record our 9th album. He then of course replied straight away saying, "Of course, I'd be extremely happy to do that.".
Touring around Japan with Shellac, did the two bands learn things from each other, even this far into your careers?
From the beginning, we did our best as an indie band DIY, not relying so much on hard promotions, and constantly released new albums and toured the world over half of the year every year. With no relation to show business, we follow our true art throughout our lifespan.
Shellac had been one of our longtime heroes, so it was an honor to be able to tour with them like that. After our Japan tour, Shellac repaid the favor and supported us for our American tour. We shared the van, stayed in the same hotel, touring with them is something that we will never forget for rest of our lives. It's such a treasured experience and a delightful memory.
What inspired the reintroduction of strings to the sound after moving away from them on Rays of Darkness?
This time, I didn't think about what I have to do or how I should do things. I just kept on writing the songs that I envisioned or kept hearing in my head.
Last week, I went to Vienna and saw Gustav Klimt's actual paintings in real life, and they made me realize once again how he kept on drawing with the same concept from his early age to the later. MONO is exactly the same. It's always about exceeding the previous album, hoping to get one step closer to our envisioned perfect art.
More than ever, even for MONO, there seems to be a real focus on light and dark. On the one hand, there's the sweetness of "Ely's Heartbeat," then on the other there's the sinister grandeur of the title track. What was the writing process like for that? Were you feeling both light and dark at the same time, or were they created from different mental spaces?
When I finished writing the basics for the new album, I stumbled upon [Dante's] Divine Comedy. After reading the book, it felt like all the roads opened up suddenly. All the pieces suddenly came together like a jigsaw puzzle and created one world. I was also fascinated by the story—going through afterlife; Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—and I felt very empathetic towards the theme of soul's salvation.
The album's storyline is set the same as The Divine Comedy. For the album cover, we used Gustave Doré's illustration from Divine Comedy's last scene. At the end of the album, I want the listeners to wonder and feel what awaits at the end of pure white vortex for the two characters.
"Ely's Heartbeat" took a form like adding your own story to the album, representing to us humanity's respect and honor transferred through generations. Our 20-year long partner and friend, Jeremy from our NYC-based label Temporary Residence, had his first born. Because he had been sending us Ely's heartbeats from long before she was born, we decided to use this world's most beautiful sound - her heartbeats in our song. It's a representation of new life and hope.
I personally live my life every day thinking "we only have limited times in our lives". This world continues to have the same dispute and remain in tension. Things you can only take to your afterlife are beloved, positive memories; not your rank or honor. I think this really is the true wealth that will forever stay with you, give you strength, and continue to shine your path.
When you're creating music from light—the pretty moments on the record—it's easy to see how you bring beauty from your sound. But even the title track here is beautiful. It's a hallmark of MONO's sound, something beautiful coming out of intense darkness. Is it an intentional move, creating light from dark? Or is it something that the band just does naturally now?
We humans don't seem to be able to see the difference between what's right and wrong, what's happiness and unhappiness, what's justice and injustice, if there is no opposing elements such as light and shadow, and life and death. This is why I think it's necessary to portray darkness in order to portray true hope, instead of just arranging pretty things.
The title song, "Requiem For Hell," is an 18-minute long lyrical poetry. It's a three-part song. A man starts his adventure seeking light and walks through the field strongly while holding onto something faintly, but when he thought everything was going according to the plan, all of a sudden, he loses hope, like the moon getting covered by the night's fog. The middle part is an absolute darkness and solitude. His small glimpse of hope fades, and even the hands that were holding him together disappear like fingers going through your body. Then in the last half, through despair, fear, and confusion, he continues to just scream and runs through this Hell like nightmare.
For the first half of the song, we used simple 8-beats, which was the first time to ever use since we formed MONO. I was picturing a man lifting his arms to the heaven, dreaming of hope. We tried using Trombone for the first time as well. It's a fanfare of joy, like dancing your heart out believing everything is going to work out, everything is definitely going to work out.
But when the hopeful fanfare once disappears, it turns into a fanfare that sounds like opening the gate to Hell. At the same time, uncertain dissonance and echoing noise starts like Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in the last half. It's a saga of extremely cruelty, humanity's greed, like two egos crashing each other, like they will never go together. An endless darkness which even screams get drowned out. I was picturing a man who's trying to escape this Hell, with feelings of never wanting to rust away and give up, and just go forth. I was picturing something like this while writing this song.
Lead photo by Mitja Kobal.
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