SYMPHONY CALL “It would have been wrong to neglect this out of fear of being perceived as indulgent,” says Takaakira Goto of Mono’s orchestral work. “The time was right to do this.”
Like most post-rock bands worth their “post-rock” tag, Mono — who come to the Middle East this Friday — just can’t help sounding immense. With each quiet-quiet-loud instrumental offering, the Japanese four-piece’s discography becomes more like a grand panorama rather than a series of easily digestible sagas. Any setting, character, or narrative floating through Mono’s work comes not from the band’s imagination but from the listener’s. It can be difficult to find catharsis among their glacial changes, and yet, when their wild expanses do bloom, their luster is brilliant.
Takaakira Goto, the band’s guitarist and lead songwriter, embraces Mono’s expanses. Hymn to the Immortal Wind (2008), their fifth studio record, offered him the chance to experiment with string arrangements, and that reignited his interest in playing with an orchestra. “We wanted to capture the emotion that memory transcends life and death — that the soul can always remember,” he explains via e-mail from the road. “Hymn embodies everything we want to pursue emotionally and sonically for a while.” The group’s recent efforts have culminated in Holy Ground, a CD/DVD set documenting Mono’s performance with the 24-piece Wordless Music Orchestra in New York City last May. The elegant affair allowed Goto to reveal supplemental orchestral material he penned during Hymn even as the band celebrated their 10th anniversary.
Rock bands collaborating with orchestras is far from a fresh idea — it goes back at least to Deep Purple’s teaming with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Concerto for Group and Orchestra in 1969. Since then, many bands (among them the Moody Blues, Portishead, and Dream Theater) have tested the concept, to mixed results. At best, the pomp is powerful (Metallica’s S&M); more often than not, it ends up as an exercise in unwarranted excess (Kiss’s Symphony: Alive IV). In spite of the odds, Goto has always been intent on playing with an orchestra. “It would have been wrong to neglect this out of fear of being perceived as indulgent or unnecessary. The time was right to do this.”
True to their reputations, both Mono and the Wordless Orchestra spend Holy Ground’s hour and a half without uttering a syllable. Augmented by a conductor, nine violins, four violas, six cellos, two flutes, one player on percussion, and another on timpani, Mono’s selections are reinvigorated. Goto’s wandering electric guitar remains the most dominant element, but the 27 players alongside him make strings cascade and whine, drums tremble, and a piano soar. Holy Ground’s most stirring moment is its climax: after wading through soft strings for a spell, “Everlasting Light” lets out a frosty blast of distortion-laced guitars, thunderously peaking as every instrument goes mad. The raw conclusion is followed by two minutes of well-earned applause.
Despite the epic results, Goto is unfazed when recalling his experiences with the orchestra. Mono did not need to modify their songs at all, and the performance produced no problems or surprises. Every piece of the concert fell right into place — evidence that he’s been sitting on this for a while. But despite its success, he believes Mono have yet to hit their apex. “I am still trying to create a song that is like a great book or movie that makes people feel as if their lives had been touched.”
MONO + THE TWILIGHT SAD | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | May 28 at 8 pm | 18+ | $12 | 617.864.EAST or mideastclub.com