Seems like hell, doesn't it. Well, in reality, it's what goes on inside the mind of Taka -- the guitarist/songwriter of Japanese instrumental quartet Mono -- as he crafts his music inside a small first-story apartment in an outer district of Tokyo. The smells and sounds of cut flesh and grinding metal are coming from a lively ground-floor restaurant, where diners scarf down yakitori, the char-grilled meat and organs of chicken.
The sonic maelstrom is the result of acerbic guitar feedback, not a choir of the damned. The only thing that corresponds to the image most people have of eternal damnation is that Taka is a soul in search of release, a release he finds through the volatility of instrumentation that is equally brooding and rampaging.
In his apartment, sequestered above the bustle, Taka creates the framework for Mono's songs. They are basically recording demos that are later brought before the group -- including drummer Yasunori Takada, bassist Tamaki and, guitarist Yoda -- to flesh out and flay. Together they combine forces to make what sounds like a Technicolor soundtrack without accompanying words or images. The members, who've played together for four years, work to create structure amid seismic sonic shifts. "They feel the circumstances and sway accordingly using a mutual understanding as foundation," says manager/translator Reiko Kudo, relaying the words of Taka.
Mono's music is not without precedent. In the mode of Chicago post-rock, Mono explores loud-soft dynamics shrouded in bristling musings and melancholic orchestration. Comparisons are easily leveled between Mono and Scotland's Mogwai, Canada's Godspeed You! Black Emperor and America's Isis. Iconic producer Steve Albini saw such primal and poignant sincerity in Mono that he solicited them to tour and work with him.
In their homeland, however, Mono's talents go largely unrecognized. Japanese popular music, or "J-Pop," inundates Japanese TV, radio and print with a Day-Glo cheeriness. Mono, like other Japanese groups such as Acid Mothers Temple, Crude, Envy and Shikabane, act as sonic terrorists striving to succeed outside the realm of J-Pop. To survive, the groups must sometimes establish independent record labels and try to develop fan bases in Europe and America. It is often an exasperating existence, with the groups establishing themselves through sheer force of will. And it is from within that eye of the storm that Mono's music rises.
On 2003's One More Step and You Die, a claustrophobic swarm of guitar, bass and drums makes for an oppressive, ominous heft, and then dissipates in mercurial shimmers. A reaction to the feelings of global disconnect post-9/11, One Step is majestic in its malevolence and lucidity.
Now on the follow-up, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, a more meditative air permeates. Inspired by modern Japanese folklore -- the story "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," about a radiation-poisoned girl from Hiroshima determined to catch the attention and well wishes of the gods through studious origami -- Walking Cloud is peppered with resolute moments of affirmation. The sound is still voluminous even when not at top volume; the grandeur is in the minutiae. From minor-key melodies to towering edifices of super-saturated sonics, Taka's pensive catharsis -- explored with his bandmates in Mono -- is one hell of an instrumental rock fan's heaven, and a heavenly hell.
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