At the close of 2019, Japanese post-rock wonders MONO were celebrating 20 years of existence with a breath-taking concert at London’s prestigious Barbican Centre. The triumphant show was a testament to everything beautiful about music – it was emotive, communal, visceral, and nostalgic. And then the world came to a grinding halt in the months that followed. MONO of 2021 is a similar beast, but one that feels a little leaner in places, a little sprightlier, and even a little more fun.
MONO have always played with the quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUDER template from the well-worn post-rock manual, yet often with a little more intensity at each end of the volume spectrum than their contemporaries can muster. Where others working within the genre were simply quiet, MONO are hushed and serene, before snapping into skull-crushing territory at the drop of a hat.
Pilgrimage of the Soul begins in the usual sedate manner with “Riptide”. It’s hardly a surprise when the intensity increases, but there is an urgency and immediacy to the sound which feels more invigorating, more cathartic than they have been for many years, maybe ever before. It’s as though the 20-year celebration has brought a renewed energy to the beautiful blizzard of bastard noise they make almost effortlessly, and Pilgrimage of the Soul progresses the MONO sound in surprising ways.
“Imperfect Things” uses whirling keyboard lines to hypnotise, before a four-to-the-floor beat creates a surprising though magnificent post-rock disco sound, while “Heaven in a Wild Flower” is an Eno-esque meditative wonder. The fact that these two tracks sit next to each other on the record highlights the confidence that MONO have with regard the duality at play in their sound, and that the two don’t always have to intertwine, but can complement rather than contradict.
The electronic components first introduced to the band’s aural tapestries on 2019’s Nowhere Now Here are present again, though their inclusion is subtle. The chiming guitars, pounding drums and exquisite orchestral arrangements are all present and correct, put the pace of some of the tracks here surprise. As well as “Imperfect Things”’ house-infused beat, “The Auguries” and “To See a World” both rattle along at a higher tempo than MONO usually serve up.
However, “To See a World” is the only blot on the record, as the snare sound is intrusive and sits poorly in the mix. That’s perhaps a little picky, but long-time collaborator Steve Albini returns for recording duties and he should know by now that not every record needs a Todd Trainer style snare thrashing away throughout. Still, if the only issue you have with a record is that the snare is too high in the mix on one track then you know that what you’re listening to is a treat.
“Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hands” is the longest track on Pilgrimage of the Soul, and is the highlight of the record. Slow keyboards interplay with electronics that sound like wheezing machines, before a chiming melody enters the fray, echoing the haunted beauty of the band’s career pinnacle “Ashes in the Snow” from 2009’s sumptuous Hymn to the Immortal Wind. “Hold Infinity…” is beautiful in its exhortation to embrace the sadness that is at the song’s core. Its melancholic splendour is the very essence of MONO, at once in love with the world and all its little miracles, whilst also being aware of the finality of being. This is musical heartbreak, melded with growing angst and restlessness as the increasingly propulsive manner of the track grows into a maelstrom. When MONO are in this mood it’s genuinely a thing of wonder.
The album closes with the lullaby piano and strings of “And Eternity in an Hour”, a restorative tonic. It feels like the soundtrack to a new day, one where the sunshine pokes through the grey clouds of yesterday, and there is a sense of refreshing petrichor around. It’s difficult not to overly romanticise the music, but if it doesn’t give you the feels then you may already be dead, my friend.
MONO have always been majestic without resorting to being morose, and although there is a haunting, elegiac quality to their work, it’s often a life-affirming assault to the senses, and a wonder to behold. Pilgrimage of the Soul feels like a statement of intent from a band now entering their third decade of existence, and this is a fine record that both acknowledges past victories and shows desire to develop and progress to new ground.