The last 15 years or so have been a period of constant change for Mono. Post-rock for the most part slipped from public and critical consciousness, a wave of imitator bands producing a mixture of worthwhile and mediocre material slowly drowning out both the larger bands and the more innovative upstarts. Where groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor went on a lengthy hiatus pursuing other projects to build back creative interest both internally and externally, Mono pursued a different path, isolating different aspects of the vast and wheeling mural of their sound on a bevy of releases. Hymn to the Immortal Wind might be the first of these more isolated experiments in retrospect, skewing toward the vast and mythic grandeur associated often with the genre. For My Parents focused on more sentimental moods, while the duology of Rays of Darkness and The Last Dawn split the sound into heavier and more symphonic lobes. Requiem for Hell, their next record, might best be summarized as their metal album, while Nowhere Now Here, their previous LP, dabbled with electronic elements and more active arrangements. It also featured their new drummer, the first membership change in the group’s history as well as their first non-Japanese member.
Each of these records, while focusing predominantly on one aspect over the others, still contained in fragments the remaining elements of the group’s sound. While one could find tracks on each record that seem, especially in retrospect, to focus exclusively on those experimental gestures defining the overall mood of the LP, the group has steadfastly remained itself across that same span. It is less shocking in the abstract then that Mono have chosen now of all times, what with the pandemic (which has been hitting Japan particularly hard due to mass government mismanagement there as well) and the general state of the world, to take a moment to evaluate themselves rather than taking a measured dialectical experimental step once more.
Pilgrimage of the Soul is a well-earned rest for a band that managed to never abandon the fundamental sound elements of the wave of post-rock that broke big in the late ’90s and early 2000s but also never managed to grow boring or stale. This is a coy way of saying that it doesn’t express the same imaginative thrust of those other records, certainly, but this also comes balanced against where some of those previous records felt a bit slight. The trio from For My Parents to the duology in particular felt well-intentioned and containing interesting gestures but nonetheless failed to gel solidly as individual statements, especially in the wake of a masterwork of the genre like Hymn for the Immortal Wind.
What Pilgrimage of the Soul brings to the table that none of the records previous to it brought, that none of them could bring, is practice. By staying within explored elements and rebalancing the equation, a heavy song here and an epic song there, a sentimental piece next to a more emotionally biting piece, Mono are finally able to show how the years have allowed them to hone and better execute these concepts. This underscores, in fact, a major element of art and genre space generally; while we fixate often on innovation as clearly a worthy benchmark of work, it comes bundled hand-in-hand with execution. Ideas are not valuable because they are new but because they are tools to that energizing experiential full-body sensation, and like all tools they grow better with refinement and practice, at least in the right hands. Anyone who has seen Mono live (or, hell, heard any of their incredible live records) can vouch for the continued power they are able to invest in their catalog, how riveting and in touch with the rock aspect of their sound when it comes to commanding an audience and guiding the sensations of the room. This same level of balance and craftsmanship which otherwise for over a decade was solely demonstrated within the context of their live set is at long last allowed back into their studio work.
It’s tempting to call Pilgrimage of the Soul their most throat-catchingly beautiful since Hymn, still their crowning achievement, but that’s not quite true; Nowhere Now Here still remains not a record to be snuffed at. But the sense of emotional breadth, spanning from the heavy metal drive of the opening track all the way to the expansive and teary-eyed “Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand” show that the fundamentals of the group are still impeccable. One wonders whether Sigur Rós, who themselves have taken a similar nearly decade-long journey through the realms of the experimental fringes, might return home someday soon.
Label: Temporary Residence
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.