Just a little over two years ago, a pretty remarkable thing happened on this website. The veteran Japanese post-rockers in Mono were releasing two albums meant to compliment each other, The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness, and fellow editor Eden Kupermintz and I were so inspired by both that we decided to work with each other to review both discs over a massive double review (fun fact: these were the first posts the two of us collaborated on, a practice we’ve continued many times since). We were both fans of the band to varying degrees already, but there was something truly special about those albums. For a band that has so often, particularly over the past decade, flooded its compositions and arrangements with as much saturated emotion and sound – often in the form of strings and other auxiliary instrumentation – Dawn and Rays were a stark reminder that absent that embellishment, Mono could still absolutely destroy you emotionally. While Dawn had a lighter, more hopeful and nostalgic touch to it, Rays was the equivalent of scraping a hollowed-out container, finding only flesh and bone remain, and continuing to dig in. It was heavy in that it featured plenty of distorted guitars and feedback/static, yes, but more importantly, the music itself was just weighty and only felt weightier the deeper you went in. The entire double album was structured so masterfully, executed so perfectly that it easily ranked as a top album of the year for many of us.
So our anticipation was sky high when the band announced their follow-up to that effort, Requiem For Hell. Between the title and the incredibly beautiful and grim album art, there was every reason to expect this would be a continuation of the heavier, more soul-sucking path laid by Rays of Darkness. Though Requiem does get plenty heavy at times and the music is characterized more on the grimmer, more melancholic side of the musical spectrum, Rays of Darkness 2.0 it is not. And thank goodness for that, because nobody really wants a repeat of something they’ve already heard. The problems with Requiem though don’t stem from not emulating the sounds of the previous album, but more so from not seeming to heed the lessons that the successes of those albums demonstrated.
Everything starts off promising enough with the lead track, “Death In Rebirth.” For the most part it checks off all of the boxes that heavier, more driving tracks from Mono’s extensive catalog traditionally have. A sparse intro slowly builds until it explodes into layers of guitar and drums, with a tremelo’d lead soaring above. Eventually the whole things crashes underneath its own weight at climax and dissipates in a field of feedback and static. It’s a perfectly serviceable track, but one that has a bit of a workmanlike quality to it that feels a bit too familiar. It doesn’t help that the track and the one that follows, “Stellar,” appear to be a reworked version of their contribution last year to the Transcendental split with The Ocean in the form of “Death In Reverse.” It was perfectly fine there, too, but immediately following The Ocean’s “The Quiet Observer,” which truly embodied the split’s name, it felt rather ho-hum and business as usual. The version that is present on Requiem For Hell is more open-ended, lush, and much crisper in production (not coincidentally, the album is the first produced by Steve Albini since 2009’s Hymn To The Immortal Wind), but when the first two tracks of a five-track album already have such a mark of familiarity to it, it can’t help but tinge how one hears the remainder of the album.
That particular issue with “Death In Rebirth” and “Stellar” wouldn’t even be that big of a deal if what followed it was a particularly huge breath of fresh air, but unfortunately none of that is to be found. Plopped in the center of the album and taking up more than a third of its total runtime is the title track, and here we have the piece that has turned its back to what made Rays work the most. Whereas no moments in the span of that album felt wasted or anything less than essential, “Requiem For Hell” is an elongated, bloated mess that commits several of post-rock’s greatest and most common sins. The music builds ever so gradually over such an extended period of time that the mind is given multiple opportunities to wander, return, and wander again without missing anything of importance. Even worse is when the track does begin to pick up a bit around the 5-minute mark, drummer Yasunori Takada and the band decide to break into a stilted and straight-forward double-time dance-like groove, thus halting any possible organic momentum created by the previous build. It’s a sonic kick in the gut, one that continues on as such for an utterly head-scratching 4 minutes of crescendo before diving into stereotypical anti-climax and re-build. Finally, at the 12-minute mark, the band actually lets go and plays a stretch of some of the heaviest, most chaotic music they’ve put to tape. It’s a magnificent few minutes of sound, but it is so utterly ruined by what preceded it that there’s no way it can make the time spent getting there worth it. It honestly would have been so easy to make this track punch so much harder and more efficiently with a little bit of restraint and self-editing (in fact, if you listen to the “single edit” version of this track that they put out, they basically did just that!), but instead what we’re left with is a 5-minute headbanger with a completely unnecessary 12-minute intro. It’s a damn shame, and unfortunately it’s pretty emblematic of the album as a whole – packed with potential and good bones but weakened to death by way too much fat and listless embellishment.
The final two tracks of the album, “Ely’s Heartbeat” and “The Last Scene,” are fine in that they neither offend or do too much to really make themselves stand out. The former is a natural comedown from the end of “Requiem For Hell” and displays enough subtlety and grace to bring to mind the kind of understated work that made their earlier catalog so indispensable. On a better album this track likely could have shined far brighter. The latter sets itself up as yet another piece of traditional crescendo-core, but it never quite takes off, existing in a somewhat uncomfortable middle zone that creates an interesting sense of unease, but one that feels strange in the position of a closing track. As a whole, Requiem For Hell sets itself up at multiple points to be a huge, soul-baring behemoth of heavy instrumental and symphonically-tinged rock, but it spends far too much time setting up that expectation without actually delivering for it to work. It doesn’t feel complete, at times feeling far too long but by the end feeling way too slight. The result isn’t a bad album as much as a wasted opportunity for a great album. Mono have proven time and time again that they know what the hell they’re doing and can expertly bend the listener’s expectations and emotions at will. But this album is just not representative of that. Maybe next time.
Mono’s Requiem For Hell is out October 14th through Temporary Residence Ltd in North America (purchase here), Pelagic Records in Europe (purchase here), and MAGNIPH/Hostess Entertainment in Japan and Asia (purchase here). You can also purchase it digitally from their Bandcamp.