For a band that has been around as long as Japan’s Mono has, it’s rather easy to drum up simple and concise narratives surrounding every new release. There’s already a broad body of work and years of building up what the band and their music represent, and it’s rare at this stage in a group’s career to do anything too radical to disrupt that image (and oftentimes when veteran bands do attempt such things it’s met with mixed to negative results and reactions). Instead, it usually becomes more about working around the edges of their core sound and identity to keep things fresh enough creatively to both warrant its existence and offer something that is in any way “new” to their listeners.
With Mono, those changes and tinkerings can be pretty easily divided into phases. There’s the “classic” period of the band’s debut Under the Pipal Tree through their fourth album You Are There in which the entire idea of what we commonly associate with Mono and their brand of emotionally-drenched and elongated post-rock formed. Following that came a couple of albums – Hymn to the Immortal Wind and For My Parents – that sought to expand the band’s sonic palette with strings and orchestral instrumentation. In 2014 the band swung dramatically in the opposite direction, embracing a more minimalistic approach coupled with tacking towards heavier and rawer material on their double album The Last Dawn/Rays of Darkness – albums we infamously adored and still hold in the highest regard. The following album, Requiem For Hell, attempted to continue in that general heavy direction – an album we very much do not hold in high regard.
That brings us to Nowhere Now Here, Mono’s tenth studio album, a particularly heavy lift for any band, but at the same time a cause for celebration in all that the band have achieved over their career. And perhaps it’s best to view the album through that particular lens, one that attempts to stitch together the various components of Mono’s discography while still giving fans new reasons to keep returning. It’s a task and goal that would be difficult to pull off for any band, even one like Mono, and though it doesn’t completely get the better of them, it also cannot be qualified as a total success.
On the surface, there is actually a whole lot to like and enjoy about this album. At multiple points Mono have managed to successfully transfer a similar type of heavy energy and spirit that imbued parts of Rays of Darkness and the more redeemable points in Requiem For Hell. This is certainly true for “After You Comes the Flood,” which takes a single melodic idea and pushes it to its limit, climaxing in a maelstrom of static and fury. “Nowhere, Now Here” and “Meet Us Where the Night Ends” also try to hit similar notes and mostly succeed in getting there, even if it takes a bit too long to actually get there. Another bright point is the use of horns at certain points throughout the album, from the opening intro “God Bless,” the early minutes of “Nowhere, Now Here,” and the appropriately mournful “Funeral Song.” They add a special and welcome flavor to the mix while not overstaying their welcome or falling into compositional cliches.
The other notable addition to Nowhere Now Here comes in the form of some experimentation with synths and melodic vocals on “Breathe” (provided by core member Tamaki Kunishi). It is a starkly unusual song for the group, sparse and ethereal, and one that is likely to be a bit divisive in fan reactions to it. In many ways it sounds similar to some of the dreamier work of fellow Japanese natives Boris, which is not at all a bad thing to be compared to. It’s a bit debatable how well the song fits in the scope of the album as a whole, but on its own it is a not unwelcome creative experiment, one perhaps they could pursue more thoroughly in the future.
Unfortunately – and I suppose appropriately for a record that attempts to synthesize the band’s body of work – much of what holds Nowhere Now Here back from being a great album are many of the same things that have plagued them throughout their different “phases.” Mono have always been great at starting songs and coming up with captivating ideas, melodies, and more that have the potential to grow from small cells into epic organisms. Too often though they falter in the process of the “payoff,” forcing themselves to build up their themes over many minutes, add bits and pieces along the way, and arrive at a climax and destination that was worth the journey. The biggest shame of Nowhere Now Here is that it’s easy to love the beginnings and central premise of just about every track on here, but then find oneself either bored or disappointed by the end of at least half of them. In particular the middle section of the album from “Nowhere, Now Here” through “Parting” suffers from this affliction and causes the album’s hour runtime feel all that much longer for it.
Not helping in this regard is the other primary drawback that has consistently stuck in my craw in the latter part of the band’s career, which is in their use of strings. Orchestral strings can be a deeply powerful, affective, and effective compositional tool for this kind of already emotionally-charged music, but the way that Mono’s primary songwriter “Taka” has chosen to employ them has depressingly been very too heavy-handed and too one-note. The setup is almost always the same: song starts with simple melodic idea on guitar; melodic idea slowly grows and music begins to swell; strings come in with either the same melody or a simple countermelody of long held notes that simply become louder and more prominent in the mix over time. There are simply so many ways to use strings to augment these kind of compositions, but Mono insist on using the same one tool in every situation despite having an entire toolbox at their disposal. More so than that, once that option is available it is used time and time again regardless of whether it’s necessary. As the saying goes, once you have a hammer everything begins to look like a nail, and Mono’s frequent use of strings as a shortcut to emotional stimulant inevitably has diminishing returns.
At the risk of spending too much time on pet issues though, I do want to end this on a positive note, which is this. On their tenth album as a band, Mono still very clearly have something to say and are actively exploring different and, at times, deeply satisfying ways to say it. That is something that should not be at all taken for granted and, in fact, celebrated. Nowhere Now Here attempts to thread a needle in bringing together decades of work along with some new sounds that prove to be too much and too difficult for them to pull off entirely, but it is nonetheless still an interesting and engaging piece of work with plenty of reward for longtime fans and more casual listeners. It’s not the easiest narrative to convey, but one that is appropriate for a band that has never been content to stick to their own narrative.
Nowhere Now Here will be released January 25, 2019 through Temporary Residence Ltd. in North America and Pelagic Records in Europe. You can also purchase digital and physical copies through Mono’s Bandcamp.