January 27, 2020
Released On September 4, 2012
Released By Temporary Residence Limited
Is the world going down the tubes? It can certainly seem like it is these days, especially if you’re watching American governmental institutions crack and sway under the perverse stress test afforded to the current presidential administration. Then again, every generation wants to believe the time it’s living in is exceptional. It’s the psychology behind doomsday cults, and it’s one reason disaster movies are so damn fun. I’m afraid to admit how many times I’ve seen San Andreas. Really — it’s not dignified. To paraphrase Rick James, entropy is a hell of a drug.
I know deep down that hope is always the answer, but there are days when bad news hits hard, and knee-jerk optimism just isn’t gonna cut it. That’s when I reach for post-rock. Massive, ominous, instrumental post-rock, with drawn-out crescendos that approach slowly like a thunderstorm, and chaotic climaxes that crest like a storm swell. The darkness and fear welled up inside me are made manifest as sound waves, shaking air that’s been around since before people walked the Earth, dissipating as tenderly as the knowledge that we’re all tiny punctuation marks in the long, long story of the universe.
So anyway, my mom sells books on Amazon. In the same way that I sneak away to dig through records whenever I find a spare 20 minutes, she regularly hits up thrift stores and yard sales in search of books she can flip online, and we’ve become co-conspirators in our respective quests. (If you’re thinking “More like enablers…,” then you’re probably my wife Madelaine, and you’re not wrong.) We turned a corner a year or so ago when my mom started FaceTiming me when confronted with a mess of unsorted records that she was game for flipping through. It’s shamefully fun — like a hole in the space-time continuum opens up just so I can have some new tunes to spin.
In June of last year, she FaceTimed me from a yard sale where she’d encountered a box of records priced $5 apiece, and it was a treasure trove. The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. Sigur Rós’ Valtari. The xx’s Coexist. Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. Feist’s Metals. She pulled so many dynamite albums out of that box — titles I’d been hoping to snag at some point from artists I knew and loved. MONO’s For My Parents, on the other hand — that one was a shot in the dark. My post-rock purview was and is relatively limited, with Godspeed You! Black Emperor serving as my main reference point. (The cover of Yanqui U.X.O. grabbed me during a visit to Steady Sounds a few years ago, and I’m still working my way into the genre.)
I’ve never been a “sounds better on vinyl” person, but I do think listening on physical formats can benefit the experience of playing certain albums. Take Makaya McCraven’s two-LP Universal Beings album from 2018. The brilliant drummer and beat scientist compiled improvisational sessions from four cities — New York, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles — and flipping from one side to the next feels like you’re picking up and traveling from spot to spot with him. My copy of For My Parents functions similarly, with a single composition on three of the four sides. Choosing a side is like deciding what kind of journey you want to take. “Legend” comprises side A and is split into two chapters — the first building to a frenzy that’s tempered by mournful strings (called The Holy Ground Orchestra in the liner notes), and the second offering an absolute monster of a melodic theme, giant in scope and composed of a circular set of notes that are transposed a handful of times so you get to hear them in multiple keys. It’s that passage of For My Parents I come back to most. You’re able to glimpse that shape from several angles, yet there’s magic in the way you never quite know whether the whole endeavor is moving up or down tonally, like a zoomed out version of the Shepard tone.
“Nostalgia” and “Dream Odyssey” are paired on side B, with “Unseen Harbor” and “A Quiet Place (Together We Go)” following on sides C and D respectively. The shortest track clocks in at a little more than eight minutes, meaning ideas have plenty of room to breathe, develop, and disappear, mirroring the way your mind is given space to wander down imagined avenues. I picture walking through a graveyard while listening to “Dream Odyssey.” “Unseen Harbor” conjures a battle won by the wrong side, and a sorrowful aftermath in which grief gives way to anger. Dreaming up these narratives, living with them, and then letting them drift back into the ether is catharsis at its finest. It’s what makes post-rock such a beautiful coping mechanism.
This one goes out to my mom (I mean, it’s literally called For My Parents), and to Godspeed, and to Richmond-based bands like Everyone Dies In The End and Shy, Low who have deepened my post-rock perspective. If you enjoyed this album but haven’t given them a listen, you’re in for a treat.
Japanese post-rock visionaries enhancing the textural beauty of modern rock through orchestral ingenuity.
I pictured a long helicopter panning shot across a vast landscape during my first listen of For My Parents. As the week progressed and I gave it a couple more spins, that morphed just a bit into a dreamscape. A soundtrack to a dream might be slightly more accurate, though. The album evokes a feeling of wandering alone in some distant, isolated place, something both beautiful and isolationist. It’s a (dream) reality, but one in which you are the lone entity. This is rather splendid timing, because I’ve been reading a collection of essays and arguments by David Foster Wallace called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It just so happens that this week I read an extended piece in the book on David Lynch, where Wallace discusses various aspects of him as both person and artist, as well as being allowed onto the set of Lost Highway and his experiences therein. What is relevant in Wallace’s writing to MONO’s music is his description of what makes Lynch’s films so creepy: “[…] and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. A kind way to put it is that Lynch seems to be one of these people with unusual access to their own unconscious.” Later in the same essay, Wallace echoes the observation that “Lynch brings to his art the sensibility of a very bright child immersed in the minutiae of his own fantasies.” And that’s what a dream is (partially) made of: fantasy. A dream is you going inside a structure built of a fabric of the fantastical that you designed. It’s a level of (nearly limitless) creativity that only comes from the unconscious or a child’s mind. Dreams, therefore, are exploratory and remote, abstract and intimate. When I listen to For My Parents, I picture myself in the sky without flying, the kind of quasi-paradox that only make sense in a fantasy world.
This piece shouldn’t have been nearly as difficult to write as it was. But life is full of unexpected moments and circumstances, so here I am, taking a break from the onslaught of reports and opinions this afternoon surrounding the tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant to listen to, digest and review a densely emotional record in For My Parents. I was never a Kobe fan because I grew up a Jordan kid. But as a result, I couldn’t help but respect the effort, and the killer instinct. And for that, he’s the closest we’ll ever see to Michael. Having not been a fan, when I first heard the news, I was fairly numb to it. But once I saw the raw reactions of his contemporaries, his peers, his boys, I began to well up with tears because I finally grasped the emotional connection of what Kobe meant to his friends and family. And that’s what For My Parents is all about — an emotional connection. This project is a seemingly endless tide of crescendos. It’s meant to stir up feelings. It’s meant to conjure memories. And with tracks like “Legend,” “Dream Odyssey,” and “Unseen Harbor,” MONO accomplishes this with great effect. Maybe it’s my profound sadness right now that makes the music so much more vivid? But you know what’s so amazing about music? For the rest of my life, I will recall this day because of the shocking news, but this record will be indelibly etched in my mind as the soundtrack to this day. And that’s the power of great music.
Filling the endless void with sweeping instrumentation.
It’s grey outside. Though the temperature has risen past the freezing point, the rain still falls cold, pelting the glass in my living room relentlessly. The house is quiet but for the faint sound of our family cat prowling up and down the stairs occasionally and the divine instrumentation of the opening bars of MONO’s For My Parents playing on our home stereo. I set aside this afternoon to do some reading — a short story from a horror anthology and a chapter from my current non-fiction book of choice. I am finding it hard to focus though because I am lost in the sound of “Legend.” Unlike ambient or folk music which can lull you into a sense of comfort as it plays non-intrusively in the background, MONO demands a sort of active listening. Landing somewhere between shoegazer and post-rock, this entire album is a rich listening experience with lush melodies, heartfelt emotion and all of it manages a rare unpretentiousness despite being an album of five long and powerful instrumentals.
I confess that I don’t have much exposure to Japanese bands and my primary channels are coworkers talking about J-Pop or Anime soundtracks and a single fascination with the ’90s band Boom Boom Satellites. It is no surprise to me that MONO was new to me, though I was rather surprised at their strong connections to some of the biggest names in North American music. Their previous record was produced by Steve Albini and (again, not surprisingly) they cite My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, two of my favourite bands, as their primary early influences.
For My Parents, produced beautifully and engagingly, is a fitting tribute to what, for many, is the most positive and important relationships in their lives. By the time you reach the rising melodic swell of “Dream Odyssey,” you realize that these Japanese musicians must have had some incredibly epic parents.
My own daughter is out of the house for the afternoon. As I watch the rain come down on the street outside and the cat returns into the room from his inspection of the house, the quiet reflection of the albums final tracks prompt me to think about the enormous impact that the very small things can have on our children’s lives. I don’t necessarily expect my daughter to craft me a shimmering musical magnum opus to declare her gratitude for my successful execution of fatherhood, but I genuinely hope that in some small way I continue to give her the freedom and the support she needs to build her best, most creative and accomplished self. Clearly that’s what the members of MONO were given — and they laid it bare on the tracks of this record.
Post-rock or pre-rock? You be the judge while listening to symphonic flourishes housed within For My Parents.
I owe Davy two debts of gratitude this week. First, when I saw the name “MONO” I was immediately cast back to Formica Blues, a one-off gem of trip-hop pop from 1997, also by a group called Mono. It’s still a delightfully tuneful and catchy album, nearly holding its own with similar efforts by Dubstar and Saint Etienne. So thanks for the reminder, Davy! And thanks also for introducing me to the world of MONO, a Japanese quartet with big ideas about instrumental, symphonic rock music. Call it post-rock if you must. One way they avoid the repetitive nature of other bands in this vein is making the quiet parts quieter and loud parts louder, building skyscrapers of guitars and strings. It’s a wonderfully absorbing approach, creating soundtracks in the mind and making my daily commute into an epic adventure. I’m just confused why no filmmakers have tapped them for soundtrack work. Perhaps they’ve been asked but prefer each listener to create their own movie. So turn out the lights, press play, and let the credits roll on your personal IMAX. What tales will you tell yourself?
I’ve gone through several drafts now of talking about this record. One was talking about the engrossing nature of the music, sensational symphonic swells that feel to grandiose and opulent for my silly little alliterative description. (My bad.) Another centered around the idea of parenthood in regards to the tragic passing of Kobe and Gianna Bryant yesterday, an event people worldwide felt sorrow for considering a family of six shrunk down to four in the blink of an eye. And yet another centered around a different idea of parenthood, the weird aspects no one ever talks about, something inspired by the week my wife and I had with our daughter who was home sick from daycare. Let me tell you, it felt pretty cathartic to write that one out, even if it did make me feel like a bad father in the midst of all the talking heads sharing stories on Kobe Bryant as a devoted father. Each zoomed in on a crucial aspect of the record — the engrossing nature speaking solely to the music, my daughter covering the broader theme of the record, and the Bryant draft joining the two somewhat opposing ideals. I tried to merge them all into one cohesive piece, but as I did so, with “Legend” blaring in my earbuds for the fourth time that day, I just stopped. Why bother making sense of something so beautifully intangible? Sure, MONO had ideas in place when they crafted it, but with no lyrics and a loose affiliation to song titles, it’s truly up to us to decide what this record is. So, with that in mind, what I really want to say is that this record is exhilarating. Truly exhilarating. I’ve mostly enjoyed the record over the past week while in the dead of night, trying to rekindle my previous work ethic with home office sessions that go longer past 2 AM than I’m comfortable admitting. In that solitary setting, I found myself thriving in the world MONO has created, getting a surprising amount of work done and pushing down that feeling of constantly being behind on personal projects. In that sense, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to MONO. The album may have not been designed with that in mind, but it nonetheless helped me keep my sanity a hectic start of the year, that included the ups and downs of parenthood, tragedy, and even confusion over just what to write about. Thanks, MONO!
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