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20-year pilgrimage of the soul: MONO's requiem for a pandemic

Tokyo group's new album takes their classic-infused noise rock to the next level

Hideki "Yoda" Suematsu, Takaakira "Taka" Goto, and Tamaki Kunishi of the Tokyo-based Instrumental Rock band MONO. The band's 11th studio album "Pilgrimage of the Soul" was released on September 17. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Lying on his London hotel bed, Takaakira Goto burst into tears of joy.

His band, MONO, had just blown away an audience at the Barbican Centre -- home to two U.K. orchestras -- with a spellbinding performance of their classical-infused instrumental noise rock.

The Tokyo-based fourpiece gig, enhanced by strings and brass from the Platinum Anniversary Orchestra, was released as a double album titled "Beyond the Past" earlier this year. The record charted at No.2 on Billboard's Classical Crossover Albums behind Metallica's "S&M2" live album.

For the band that had played 1,443 shows over two decades in 59 countries, the Dec. 14, 2019 concert was to be their last before the pandemic struck.

"The excitement was still in my body. I was feeling all the 20 years we had been performing," Taka told Nikkei Asia at the band's studio near Komazawa in western Tokyo. "It felt we had been on a pilgrimage. Walking on a roadless path, growing up on it, working to make our dreams come true."

"Pilgrimage of the Soul," MONO's 11th studio album, was released on Sept. 17. Recorded and mixed by legendary American musician and producer Steve Albini, the record takes their music's intensity to new extremes.

The opening track "Riptide" opens with a soft, intricate melody before violent guitars and drums crash in like a gunshot to launch an aural assault on the listener. The rest of the record uses the same loud-quiet dynamics in an orchestrated fusion of hard rock, shoegazing, and classical music.

"We started out not being able to get gigs at live houses in Japan because we didn't sing songs," Taka said. "The opening track on the new record is about entering a world with no one to share it with... and we wanted it to portray our 20-year journey."

Playing together for more than 20 years, Taka, middle, said the turning point for the band came during the making of their third album in 2003, which was heavily influenced by European giants Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

This journey started in the late 1990s when Taka recruited Hideki "Yoda" Suematsu as a second guitarist -- "He was like a little brother to me" -- adding Tamaki Kunishi after advertising for a female bass player. Together with then drummer Yasunori Takada, they met for the first time in the same Komazawa studio.

"The first time we played with tracks I had prepared it didn't really work, but the second time we practiced, I had a moment when I knew it would work. This opened up our future," Taka said.

MONO played their first gig at Club 251 in Tokyo's artsy Shimokitazawa district in January 2000, with a few more shows across the city that year. "But," said Taka, "because it was hard to get bookings, I realized we would be better trying our luck overseas."

In November that year, they exchanged faxes with a friend in New York who got them a gig at the bottom of the bill at the Mercury Lounge.

"We had no money, and after landing we took a taxi straight to the venue, and were told to go on straight away. It was nerve-wracking," Taka recalled. "There were only about five or six people in the crowd by the time we finished. I had many dreams about what our first overseas show would be like, but the reality was a shock."

Undeterred, the band went back to Tokyo, played some shows, and worked part-time jobs to save money to travel overseas again. The following year they performed several gigs in America, including at CBGB -- the New York birthplace of punk -- and the SXSW festival, as well as a short tour of Sweden.

"[Unlike in Japan], the American scene is all about merit. If your band is good, people will come to watch you again and it spreads by word of mouth," said Taka.

As MONO's fan base expanded, the band released its first album "Under the Pipal Tree" in 2001 on John Zorn's Tzadik Records, a label known for promoting underground music from avant-garde genres.

Over the next two decades, MONO has grown organically as their intense sound has gradually evolved. The turning point, according to Taka, came during the making of their third album in 2003, when he became fond of classical composers including Ludwig van Beethoven ("the original punk"), Gustav Mahler, and the cinematic soundtracks of Ennio Morricone.

"I was really absorbed in how I could play the guitar in a style like an orchestra... and create [classical] dynamics even without a conductor," said Taka.

"Beethoven's piano solos are romantic and quiet, but his symphonies are divine. There's no microphone, just human power to add dynamics. Through this orchestration, you can express all emotions from deep joy to sadness and anger," he said, adding that "Beethoven is more romantic, more intense than anyone else. I want to use dynamics that can't be found just in rock."

The band brought in an American drummer, Dahm Majuri Cipolla, in 2018 -- a move that Taka believes added a new dimension to his compositions. Albini, who has worked on the band's music for the past 17 years, knows their sound probably better than anyone.

"Most bands have a direction to their music where you can tell from the beginning of the song what the end of the song will sound like," said MONO's legendary American producer Steve Albini. "Mono's music grows and evolves from minute to minute." (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"Most bands have a direction to their music where you can tell from the beginning of the song what the end of the song will sound like, and I appreciate that Mono's music grows and evolves from minute to minute, and the skill used to navigate this kind of arrangement," Albini said. "It's demanding music to play because it comes from a limitless imagination."

Known for his work on a slew of influential albums including Nirvana's "In Utero" and the Pixies' "Surfer Rosa," Albini thinks each MONO record builds on the long arc of the band's aesthetic.

"It's best to see individual records or performances as notes in a melody. They make the most sense in context, as part of hearing a lot of this music over time rather than as a single event," Albini said, adding that the pandemic will likely have a big influence on MONO's work.

"There was a big adjustment needed for the pandemic, where the band members couldn't be together to rehearse or perform, and I suspect that as travel and congregation become more possible that there will be something like a dam breaking or a door opening that will create a new level of intensity," Albini said.

As for Taka himself, he believes the time lost due to the pandemic has given the band the opportunity to reflect and prepare for its next adventure. "[The pandemic] has revealed to me that time and lives are finite. I want to make the time I have as meaningful as I can," he said.

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