On their sixth album, For My Parents, the veteran Japanese band Mono have cultivated an experience of exquisite musical artistry with compositions both befitting the entirety of their lauded catalog and finding the band bridging the chasm between rock instrumentation and classical music more than ever before.
Mono have never been elated with the lazy classification of their music as post-rock. On For My Parents, they push their sound towards even more deeply into the realm of neoclassical with great ambition. Undoubtedly, critical opinion of their sound will never be fully disassociated from exceptional post-rock forefathers like Mogwai and Godspeed, You Black Emperor. However, if Mono is to be pigeonholed into the genre (as they have been for more than twelve years), then surely Taka, Yoda, Tamaki, and Yasunori deserve to revered in the highest esteem at the top of the genre. This is a band that has made a thriving career out of dynamics between minimalism and noise rock with increasingly classical flourishes; on For My Parents, the compositions unfolding around Taka’s guitar leads are more symphonic than anything in the band’s history (and anything else in rock for that matter).
The symphonic sweep may be a bit off-putting for those intent on embracing post-rock tension under the basic tentpoles of rock instrumentation noise crashing against the serene minimalism. Some early takes on sprawling gems like album opener “Legend” and the 14-minute instrumental rock symphony of “Unseen Harbor” have relied on descriptors like cheesy and have invoked Mr. Holland’s Opus comparisons due to increased use of strings, flutes, contrabasses, and cymbal swirls. The cynicism inherent in those perceptions is unfortunate, because the grandeur vividly brought to life over the five compositions on For My Parents are maximally accomplished, impassioned works of artistry.
On the band’s last album, 2009’s Hymn to the Immortal Wind, longtime Mono ally and legendary producer Steve Albini oversaw Mono’s incorporation of the more symphonic elements of cellos, violas, flutes into an already winning formula. In the time between Hymn to the Immortal Wind and For My Parents, Mono recorded the live album Holy Ground with New York’s Wordless Music Orchestra, who returned on For My Parents. It should be noted this is the first time in eight years that Mono has made an album without Albini producing. Instead, the foursome temporarily relocated to Henry Hirsch’s Waterfront Studio, a remodeled cathedral that overlooks the Hudson River. The scenery comes through in the construction of the album as powerfully as you’d imagine.
As a reviewer, there’s not much good that can come from deconstructing the compositions in a wordless, neoclassical album as rich with verve and feeling as For My Parents. It’s a record with a central theme of humanity that is explicit in the title. Taka said he was drawn “to the idea of a young boy spending a lifetime growing out of his childish ways, and learning how to embrace his parents as they became elderly and frail… What cannot be explained in words to parents, we hope can be captured by this album.”
When inhabiting the world of For My Parents, the cumbersome burdens or richest rewards are solely in the listener’s hands. The value of this album (as with all popular music, but more explicitly so with Mono) rests in attitude and the fundamental divide between cynicism and idealism, sentimentality and high drama. In a 2009 review, Pitchfork likened the grandeur of Mono to that of Celine Dion in an extended comparison; more recently, the tastemaking site characterized the symphonic compositions of For Our Parents as “a series of power ballads with the choruses ripped out.” Every person has the right to his own interpretation of music or art, but to suck out the soulful recesses of such works in order to parse them down to snappy quips seems hopelessly reductive. To do so is as bankrupt as depreciating Malick’s The Thin Red Line into the lazy categorization of war picture, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia to that of an apocalypse movie, or limiting “Stairway to Heaven” to just another power ballad.
Songs like the patient and ultimately bombastic, 12-minute anthem “Nostalgia” and the supremely elegant “Dream Odyssey,” with its simple piano and fingerpicked guitar melody that unfolds into an otherworldly revelation, absolutely lose their luster and commanding power when they are reduced to fundamental classifications in print or by genre. If you approach For My Parents cynically with the fullest intention of nitpicking, then Mono’s incorporation of strings and prodigious usage of kickdrums, bells and cymbal swells may very well register as heavy-handed and cheesy. However, if you open yourself to the opulent world within the five songs of For My Parents with a wide open heart and earnest ears, don’t be surprised when your investment pays out with interest for years to come.
Simply put, the album will be one of the year’s most rewarding achievements for listeners willing to embrace it. For My Parents is a profound testament of Mono’s power. It’s a progression upon a formula they have fleshed out for more than a decade, a secession from simple genre classification, and a work unlike anything else in any strain of commercial music.
Mono – “Nostalgia”
For My Parents is out now via Temporary Residence.
For My Parents:
3. Dream Odyssey
4. Unseen Harbor
5. A Quiet Place (Together We Go)
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