Mono's 'Hymn' is an epic post-rock landmark

BY JACK PORTER
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 31, 2009

Mono
Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Temporary Residence Limited

4 out of 5 stars

“Epic” is an overused word. But to call Hymn to the Immortal Wind anything less than epic would be an understatement. Epic is to be expected of any album that stretches seven tracks for more than an hour and features a full symphony orchestra. Thankfully, Mono rose even above these expectations and recorded a landmark post-rock opus.

Like any odyssey, the album is rife with sound, fury, blood, thunder and everything in between. Because it's entirely instrumental (like the rest of the Japanese band's work), the album's abstract themes are wide open to interpretation. Despite the album's daunting scale, the band speaks a language anyone can understand. Mono applies paint to the canvas in broad strokes, drawing on familiar musical archetypes and focusing on establishing an emotional connection with its audience.

Because of these stylistic decisions, it's easy to agree with the band's assertion that the songs on Immortal Wind are “hymns,” even though they sound more like a film score. Guitars accompany the other stringed instruments in the symphony instead of hogging the limelight, and drummer Yasunori Takada often abstains from playing at all. Mono's songs rise and fall on waves of romantic string swells, guiding the listener from moods of quiet contemplation to wild abandon.

“Ashes in the Snow” sets the stage with its wistful tremolo guitar and somber strings. Cymbal crashes build mounting tension in the background, which is then released with wild rock drumming and distorted guitar riffs joining the orchestra's melancholy cries. Its placid moments evoke images of trudging through a snowy wasteland, while the more bracing passages seem to lament the cost of human violence

The next track, “Burial at Sea,” further probes themes of disaster and loss. The rumbling timpanis and twanging bass guitar chords add to the atmosphere of a tumultuous ocean storm. The song then segues quietly into “Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn.” Led by a repeating piano melody and mournful cellos, the band performs a maudlin dirge that's simple but powerful.

“Pure as Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm)” signals a rebirth with its bright, ascending guitar figures and triumphant, crashing drums. Later, swirling distorted guitar riffs seem to reach skyward and erupt into howling feedback, creating the sensation of being caught in a fierce blizzard.

The album’s journey comes to a close with the two-part suite of “The Battle to Heaven” and “Everlasting Light.” While the war-cry of “Heaven” echoes other tracks on the album, “Everlasting Light” is an achievement that stands on its own. Beginning with a haunting piano line, the piece builds for over six minutes, finally erupting into a transcendent blast of white heat.

Hymn to the Immortal Wind is a sonic narrative that details the escape from the horrors of war and natural disaster (“Ashes in the Snow” and its counterpart “Pure as Snow”) to the hopeful ache of rebirth (“The Battle to Heaven” and its victory found in “Everlasting Light”). The album is most immediately read as a tale of death and ascension, but it could be cast just as convincingly as one of grief and acceptance. It’s a grand and ambitious work that should deflect criticism with its condensed romantic fervor and universal appeal. Its broad themes and repeating melodies may be simple and saccharine, but why burden beauty with subtlety?