There’s always that nervous feeling when you hear any new material from one of your favourite bands for the first time. If it’s different from what’s gone before it may clash with whatever expectations you may have had, and of course there’s the worry that the sound loses the special something that made you love it to begin with.
Throughout their career MONO have been placed alongside a distinct group of bands whose common characteristics are basically long, instrumental guitar-based songs. In recent years though they have moved away from this experimental rock-based format and have gradually crept closer to an ‘orchestral rock’ or neo-classical one. Their 2012 studio effort, For My Parents, is a continuation of that and holds back on the noise in favour of classical-style arrangements.
It’s definitely another step in the evolution of the band’s sound, distancing it from the genre labels that once defined them. It’s not a departure though: it’s still a recognisable MONO record, although fans who enjoy the extended jams of Karelia and The Kidnapper Bell or the angst-ridden shrieks of feedback and self-oscillating FX pedal mayhem of COM(?) or Yearning might be disappointed. As its title suggests, For My Parents is a more…mature offering that suggests that the band are mellowing with age.
One of the common ways of describing this band is that they sound like a film soundtrack, a prime example being the opening tune Legend and the final climatic moments of the closing track A Quiet Place (Together We Go). Although you can probably anticipate the dynamic shifts in the pieces — listen to enough of their songs and you get a feel for when the Loud Bits are likely to kick in — I must confess it’s still a moving experience when they do happen.
It’s fair to say then that this isn’t an album that holds many surprises in some ways. If you follow the progression from the first uses of a string quartet in their early material through to the thirty or so members of the Holy Ground Orchestra who accompanied them on their tenth anniversary live shows (I can say from personal experience that the London performance was superb) it makes sense that the strings section features more prominently while the guitars don’t always take centre stage.
The maturity, and possibly the increased confidence that stems from a growing back catalogue, shows through in this gradually-changed emphasis. The line-up of the band is the same, of course: Yasunori Takada’s percussion still powers the songs along with washes of cymbals, pounding timpani and clash or two of a gong; Tamaki Kunishi’s booming bass guitar forms a melodic foundation while the dueted guitar parts are provided by Takaakira ‘Taka’ Goto and Hideki ‘Yoda’ Suematsu.
The clue of this album’s intentions is in the title really. MONO have rarely drawn attention to their nationality or cultural heritage, and even this offering doesn’t make any overt references to events such as the Sendai disaster last year. Instead, it’s a more general yet simultaneously personal message that I think gains more relevance with time. Being an instrumental record, these songs lend themselves particularly well to the individual listener’s interpretation, so perhaps for older fans whose own parents are approaching old age, or indeed those with children of their own, its over-arching themes will resonate more.
Looking back at how powerful and LOUD the early albums were, and how they were a little-known indie outfit trying to make their claim on the music scene, it makes sense that MONO are no longer the same band they once were. Regular international tours must have put a new perspective on their own outlooks — Takada now has children of his own, for instance — and this album reflects that.
I must admit that part of me misses the ‘old’ MONO with its violent crescendos and noise-rock attitude, but moving further down the path to pastures new is arguably preferable to falling into a rut and churning out the same things over and over. The rising tide of Nostalgia and the instrospective amble of Dream Odyssey pick up where the likes of You Are There and Hymn to the Immortal Wind left off, and the longest piece, Unseen Harbour, is the ‘new’ MONO encapsulated in one song: quiet-loud-quiet dynamics, chiming piano, crashing percussion and evocative atmospherics. It’s still arguably as powerful and dramatic as their earlier work, but in a different way that may or may not work for you.
There are of course a lot of bands who do the long guitar-y instrumental thing these days, and many who do it very well indeed. It’s no longer an issue of meeting expectations or deliberately trying to ‘do different’ for MONO any more though; they have their signature approach perfected and polished, and the experience of slipping back into the sombre violins and trem-picked guitars feels like diving into a familiar river and letting the current carry you to a very familiar and happy place.
This isn’t a return to their edgy early years, nor is it an unforseen leap into a completely different territory; it’s still a special event by anyone’s standards and does what it sets out to do better than most. The pitfalls of coming across as bombastic or clichéd are avoided by their straightforward sincerity, and the unavoidable fact that MONO still hit all the right emotional buttons when it matters.
For My Parents strikes a delicate balance between maintaining what makes their music so evocative and effective, but avoiding becoming tired and predictable. Overall it succeeds: the more I thought about it, the less important the question of “is it better than the previous album or not?” became. It’s another MONO record, and it’s great. Enjoy it.