Appreciating Mono requires a bit of willful amnesia. As with 2002’s One More Step and You Die, their third full-length, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, with its familiar blend of downcast melodies and walloping feedback-fueled crescendos, sounds about as close to Mogwai’s early work as you’ll hear. It’s not that Mono’s version of the ol’ instrumental binge ‘n’ purge doesn’t resonate, it’s just that it’s impossible to listen to this Japanese quartet without repressing the memory of nearly the entire Constellation and Kranky rosters. At its worst, such mimicry does great damage to the post-rock cause — transforming musical innovation into parody and solipsism.
Give these guys credit, though, for at least biting their influences with some flair and skill. Taken on their own, Mono manages some monumental moments with a relatively small lineup. Guitarists Takaakira “Taka” Goto and Yoda build their fuzz-pedal epics with a brutal logic that at times even equals their peers. This is true especially on “Lost Snow” and the sublime “Halcyon (Beautiful Days).” The latter’s use of a string quartet, a weapon employed throughout the record with varying degrees of success, is a godsend here — transforming a meandering dirge into the kind of sweeping drama fit for a symphony hall or a bombing raid. And “Lost Snow” gets by purely on conviction with Goto and Yoda pounding away with disregard for both your ear drums and your record collection.
Elsewhere, though, neither the lilting strains of the string quartet nor the hands of veteran producer Steve Albini seem able to redeem Walking Cloud from rather middling imitation. The inclusion of strings throughout much of the record has done little to sharpen the group’s bite. If anything, they’ve lessened Mono’s impact. With no one but the four of them to carry their daunting musical weight, the drums and guitar actually hit harder on One More Step and You Die, achieving a kind of naked force that allowed for moments of transcendence beyond the music’s obvious influences. But surprisingly, even with Albini and his trademark drum fetish, new tracks like “16.12” and “Ode” feel lukewarm, their power diluted with string-laden sap.
It remains to be seen whether Mono has the chops to rise above the tag of “Japan’s Mogwai.” With three full records and an EP already, though, I wonder if we’ll get anything more from them then blown amps and broken strings.