Mono’s debut album, 2001’s Under the Pipal Tree, featured a few flourishes of cello amid its melodramatic, guitar-driven post-rock. Since then, the Japanese instrumental outfit has incrementally raised the presence of chamber sounds on their records, to the point where their last two full-lengths—the 2010 live album Holy Ground and the 2012 studio album For My Parents—were swamped with symphonic fluff. It’s pretty enough, but it also undercut one of the band’s initial strengths: tension. Crescendos and cannonades became as quaint as clockwork, and the band’s magnificence was made mundane. The best that could be said of Mono is that they were impeccable self-editors.
That hasn’t changed on The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness, two new studio albums being released concurrently. Spread between two discs, the 10 songs feel more like an average Mono double-LP split in half and given two names. But there’s something at least nominally interesting about the way they’re divided: The Last Dawn continues along the orchestral arc that For My Parents followed, while Rays of Darkness strips things down to the rock-quartet bone—and adds a couple of tiny surprises that don’t make up for an overall lack of spark.
The Last Dawn is a dreary exercise in being as obvious as possible. With violin and cello as its crutches, “The Land Between Tides/Glory” squanders a fantastic intro—Zeppelin-esque in tone, shoegazing in execution—with percussive clichés and a corny piano coda. The candlelit keys on “Kanata” are even worse; there are 70s soap-opera theme songs with more emotive potency. Mono’s debt to Mogwai and Sigur Rós has never been hidden, but the waltzing schmaltz of “Cyclone” could be the product of any Explosions in the Sky knockoff of the past 10 years. Make no mistake, The Last Dawn is both sweeping and elegant, full of grand melodic gestures and updrafts of euphoric distortion. You can hear the big punches coming from a light year away, and that’s part of their power: They tug at the nervous system like circadian rhythms. But when the title track sleepwalks out of the orchestra pit and into the realm of noise-pop lullaby, it might as well be the scratch of a pencil on a checklist.
And, Rays of Darkness is just inexplicably dull. On it, Mono pulls off an impressive feat: smashing gargantuan swells of drama and volume into two-dimensional smudges, as if they were bugs to be afraid of. The removal of a string section might seem like a brave move on their part, especially after relying on its ostensible grandeur for so long—but they don’t substitute anything in its place except a higher setting on the fuzz pedal. “Recoil, Ignite” isn’t bad by any means, although its whale-song-through-a-Marshall-stack sound just sits in the midrange, inert and suspenseless. Making background music this loud is an accomplishment itself, even though “The Last Rays” confuses beige static with edgy experimentalism.
A couple of guest artists help liven up two of the album’s four tracks: Calexico’s Jacob Valenzuela lends his trumpet to “Surrender,” and Envy’s Tetsu Fukagawa sings on “The Hand That Holds the Truth”. The former track is another case of missed opportunities; Valenzuela’s tone is dusty and ghostlike, but all he does is follow the guitar for a few bars. Nothing will make you wish harder for Rob Mazurek’s punchy, twisty trumpet on Tortoise’s “TNT”. Fukagawa’s vocals on “The Hand That Holds the Truth” are far more successful. True to form, he howls a hole through the flimsy, post-rock-patterned tissue of the song. If only the song pushed back—against him or anything.
Post-rock works best when it embraces, or at least acknowledges, the subatomic friction within the conventional rock lineup. The same goes for cinematic music, another genre that Mono have a leg in; without counterpoint and textural contrast, it can slump into a pretty blob. These two new releases may be at attempt to point out some diametric dialogue at play within Mono’s music, but the range is so constricted it doesn’t allow for much beyond meek agreement. There’s a lack of texture and energy to these two albums, and also a lack of ideas; almost every song feels like a practice-space warm-up jammed and discarded by a far better band. At times in the past, Mono have been that band, and echoes of that exquisite urgency still surface here and there. It’s not enough. Mono have clearly evolved over the 13 years since Under the Pipal Tree—but if The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness are any indication, that evolution is going around in circles.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1sfowbT