Hymn to the Immortal Wind

(Temporary Residence; 2009)

By Christopher Alexander | 17 April 2009

I revisited The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly recently, and was struck by a basic incongruity between the film’s visuals and Ennio Morricone’s score. The basic themes of the work are as deservedly famous as the film itself, but while they match each other in tempo and rhythm—the camera observes a great distance and travels little, the music is a supersonic amplification of Mexicana music with great attention to its tense dominant sevenths, the effect being a sort of galloping gravitas—one can’t help the feeling that Morricone runs out of patience before Sergio Leone does. The music swells and crescendos as Clint Eastwood makes a step to the left, perhaps a full minute (what seems like an agonizing and breathtaking half-hour) before the true pay-off of the scene—accompanied by the score’s dramatic, slashing silence.

Tokyo’s Mono follows Morricone’s music to the letter, but seems to be working from Leone’s sense of drama and timing. “Ashes in the Snow,” which opens Hymn to the Immortal Wind and provides its carbon blueprint, doesn’t achieve climax until almost eight minutes into it’s eleven minute run-time; when it does, it is in the middle of what must be the thousandth iteration of a phrase introduced as a gentle toy piano riff. The whole point of the piece is that moment, you know it the second you hear that leap in the second half of the melody. And still the band makes you wait for it, teasing you with portentous drum hits that then stop, or a loud guitar gone quiet; approach/avoidance tactics as old as the sky. But your jaw still drops when that very same note comes in as loud as possible, like a wave that breaks against your body that you can’t quite brace. So you let it wash over you, because the time is exactly right.

“Ashes in the Snow” breaks the protocol by having something of a coda, which is a mere inverted variant on the theme. You can tell because the drums let up for a second—otherwise, you’d miss it if you blinked. But the coda introduces a string section which will dominate the album. Unlike, say, Anima, who provides a melodic counterpoint to Sigur Rós’ ambient padding—or even Mono’s brilliant album with World’s End Girlfriend, Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain (2005), where strings laid a somnambulant bed for the band’s melodic and dynamic surges—the strings and the band follow each other on the album’s major pieces like “The Battle to Heaven” and “Burial at Sea.” (Two sleepier piano pieces utilize the section for more conventional means, and while they’re fine in their way, they also feel more like interstitial scenes between violent shoot-outs.) It can be described as a Phil Spector production, only if “Be My Baby” were a minor key dirge set in the middle of a hurricane, possibly in tornadic lift. On that note, Steve Albini deserves another in a long line of accolades. His attention to the sound of the room, rather than the notes of the song, gives the album a stifled, claustrophobic feel that, paradoxically, provides the album its explosive connectivity. It’s like listening to a strong feeling that yearns to be vented, but instead is left inside its confining limits, echoing on itself.

Mono have the benefit of being one of the last acts standing of this ilk, at least with their reputation and audience. Sigur Rós have spent the last two albums consolidating its sound, Godspeed You Black Emperor broke up, Mogwai continues to make thrilling music totally unlike 1997’s Young Team, and even labelmates Explosions in the Sky felt a need to change gears slightly. Certainly, at times this music can seem a little silly, like the minor key moodiness of mid-period Cure writ large. But there’s still a kind of bravery in their unwavering devotion to the monochromatism of their emotions (pun not intended, though relished). Mono, like Sergio Leone’s best films, stretches time to a point just before its breaking point; it’s as if they believe that when their music ends, so does time, and so does the world.