By: Dylan Schink
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Very few bands get to have it both ways. Explosions in The Sky write some absolutely beautiful songs, but they don’t tend to have the emotional punch needed to crack the more cynical listener’s shell. On the other hand, Swans have taken an utterly brutal approach and demolish emotional walls, yet rarely would I call them beautiful. MONO are one of precious few bands that get to be staggeringly, even perception-alteringly beautiful, delivering blow after blow of emotion. When they announced that their double-release would consist of a light album and a dark album, I almost shuddered at the idea of MONO deliberately making one album to lift us up and another to put us down. Could I handle that? Could anyone?
When I received the album, The Last Dawn’s tracks were labeled 1-6 while Rays of Darkness’ were 7-10, implying I should hear The Last Dawn first. So I went to the rocks around Plymouth Sound—my favourite listening spot—to plug in my headphones and start. Following the usual structure of a MONO album, ‘Land Between Tides of Glory’ is a massive opener, swelling to almost unbearable magnitude before suddenly dropping off, leaving us with just a piano melody and MONO’s now signature string accompaniment. MONO have been refining their neoclassical-by-way-of-Sonic Youth sound since You Are There, and with The Last Dawn they reach its apex. Of course, that’s what I thought when I heard their previous album, For My Parents, but clearly there was space I couldn’t even comprehend for them to go farther. They’ve taken the unrivalled songwriting they demonstrated on For My Parents and wrapped it in the fuzzier, more punk sound of Hymn To The Immortal Wind. It’s everything I could want a “light album” from MONO to be and more. It’s incredibly balanced, keeping slower, quieter songs songs like ‘Katana’ and ‘Elysian Castles’ between the bigger, more emotional songs, giving us moments to breathe as we’re propelled higher and higher. As I looked out on the sound, watching the moon and the stars dancing on it, everything felt perfect. I felt weightless as the music stripped parts of me away and left me with nothing but joy.
As The Last Dawn was coming to an end, I saw clouds coming over from the west, and literally the moment Rays of Darkness first digs in, they covered the moon and the night went much, much darker. Of course this was simply a happy accident, but I couldn’t help but grin as the weather transpired to compliment the band. ‘Recoil Ignite’ is MONO’s biggest opener ever; it’s both a complete transformation and a return to their roots, showing off everything they’ve learned as they’ve honed their songwriting to near perfection and then packaging it in the raw, depraved sound of One More Step And You Die and Under The Pipal Tree.
It was at this moment I understood why The Last Dawn came first: it lifts you up so Rays of Darkness can throw you down and crush you that much harder. The next track isn’t quite an intermission, but it’s a reprieve from the intensity of ‘Recoil Ignite’. It hammers and buzzes and and introduces somber brass over a wash of strange, pained sounds. Next, we get to ‘The Hand That Holds The Truth’. This, I feel, is the only song on these albums that falls short of perfection. It starts with a sparkly build, creating a suspense that is quickly resolved with a sudden wall of guitars and drums. But the vocal contribution, Envy’s Tetsu Fukagawa barking shortly over washing, seamless guitars, feels out of place and slightly distracting while not adding anything meaningful. It doesn’t ruin the song, but I wish it weren’t there. The album ends with ‘The Last Rays’, wherein MONO, in every conceivable fashion, usurps Merzbow to become the king of noise music. It’s pure noise; there are no melodies, riffs, rhythms or structures here. But in that noise there are so many layers and forms. The sound undulates and twists in your ears as what’s left of us desperately tries to make sense of the onslaught we’ve faced. This is the final and largest nail in the coffin MONO has built for us. It’s the perfect, soul destroying end to the album and the ultimate distillation of the underlying concept. Incredible though it was, the rest of the album was superfluous; this is where the darkness comes from. All we can do after this final abandonment of musicality is sit there and try to pick up the pieces of our minds.
The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness are two very distinct albums, and I understand why MONO have tried to make it clear they aren’t “Part 1” and “Part 2.” That said, they go hand in hand so well that, for me, they’ve become inseparable companion pieces—distinct and hugely different, but complimenting each other so well that each becomes something far, far greater in the context of the other. These albums have put me through so much, and, just as I said after seeing MONO live the first time, I’ve had to adjust my concept of beauty in light of this. I want to hear ‘Land Between Tides Glory’ when I go up in the rocket, and ‘Recoil Ignite’ as I fall into the sun.
I’d like to leave you with this anecdote about my experiences listening to the album: I was listening to some of the quieter tracks from The Last Dawn in the front room, and my friend (who is basically unfamiliar with post-rock) came in. “I just woke up from a nap, crying, I thought my depression was coming back, and then I realised it was your music”.