It’s been an eventful few years for Japanese instrumental act MONO; aside from the brutal touring commitments for previous album Requiem For Hell (as an example, the European leg of that run took them to 38 different cities for 38 shows in 38 days), and the release of not one but two solo projects by guitarist Takaakira Goto, they’ve had to contend with an integral line-up change for the first time in their 20-year history – drummer Yasunori Takada left the band toward the end of 2017, and the band didn’t play another show until they’d found a full-time replacement.
Step forward Dahm Majuri Cipolla, whose most recent work up to that point had been with Watter, who share a label with MONO in North America. Joining the band ahead of a run of shows that included their slot at the Robert Smith-curated Meltdown in London, he was also behind the kit as they entered the studio to complete their tenth studio album, before heading to Europe to preview the record in a live setting; and all this in a whirlwind four-month period. ‘Intense’ doesn’t come close to describing it, and the resulting album Nowhere Now Here thrives on the sort of urgency that comes from having to remake the band in a new image on a tight schedule.
The influence of Goto’s Behind the Shadow Drops project is notable, with those elements reintroduced into something resembling a ‘band’ format – insofar as MONO has ever fit that description, with the sound of its four main members often augmented by additional instrumental backing, as much a ‘collective’ as anything else. Opener ‘God Bless’ introduces a two-note brass motif that raises the curtain on the world created by the album – later reprised and expanded in a fittingly morose context on ‘Funeral Song’ – acting as a foil to the riff-driven heaviness of ‘After You Comes the Flood’, a forceful reminder of how powerful the quartet’s music can sound when at its most strident. Goto, Cipolla, rhythm guitarist Hideki Suematsu and bassist Tamaki Kunishi seem to move as one as the track lurches through its five-minute running time before ending abruptly.
When listening to Nowhere Now Here as a complete album, you may not be able to tell where one track ends and another begins at first – it’s an hour-long piece broken up into movements as much as it is an album, with motifs and melodies rearranged and distorted throughout, tracks often flowing seamlessly into each other. On first listen, though, some of them will stand out, and not for the reasons you might expect. For instance, ‘Breathe’ introduces vocals to MONO’s repertoire, with Kunishi’s melancholy vocals pairing with an atmospheric keyboard backing in a manner that might leave some listeners disoriented after the first two tracks. The band’s continuing exploration of contrast and dynamics means that these songs can shift gears with no advance warning – ‘Far and Further’ features a waltzing guitar ostinato that’s barely there, with the introduction of Cipolla’s bass drum at the halfway point having the effect of a seismic shift, to say nothing of when the full band comes in – so be prepared for some abrupt changes in tone.
As for when the band is in full flight, as they are on the 10-minute title track and the 8-minute ‘Sorrow’, those minutes pass in a blur, and those tracks seem only half as long. The album balances on a knife-edge between ethereal beauty and devastating force and the best way to experience it is through setting aside an hour and taking everything in. Comparison to their past work will only get you so far, as the band hasn’t stood still in two decades or bothered with making the same album twice. They’ve carried on through the sort of setback that would have destroyed many a band, and in doing so have pushed themselves further than most would think possible, delivering one of their strongest bodies of work barely a year after losing an integral part of themselves. On Nowhere Now Here, not only have MONO regrouped, they’re simply thriving.