Mono- Oath (Album Review)

June 18, 2024


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Japanese post rock band Mono has become one of the better-known acts in the genre over the course of their twenty-five-year career, as their ability to move between sparser, introspective passages and dense, booming peaks has made their discography stand out.  Depending on which era of the band you explore, you might be met with slightly noisier and louder moments or lush, orchestrated ones, with more recent albums bringing these two sides together even closer than before.  2021’s Pilgrimage of the Soul adopted a slightly more direct approach with an emphasis on faster tempos, but this year’s Oath opts for the opposite with even more sprawl and periods of calmer minimalism.  It’s one of Mono’s longest albums in recent memory at an hour and eleven minutes, but that time is well-utilized with equal amounts of darker, introspective tones and beautiful, brighter ones.

Nowhere Now Here and Pilgrimage of the Soul both introduced some different elements into Mono’s established formula, adding in electronics alongside the dense layers of guitar and orchestration as well as putting an even greater emphasis on the drums than before.  By comparison Oath doesn’t make as big of a jump, instead molding all these aspects together in a way that comes across as familiar without being a retread.  The first three song are closely tied, as the cleverly named “Us, Then” and “Then, Us” bookend the title track with soft electronics and orchestration that have a dreamlike and curious tone to them.  “Oath” brings in more horns and other subtle layers, but around the three-minute mark the guitars and drums explode into the mix with a much noisier sound that still retains much of the brightness from earlier.  From this point on there isn’t much brevity to the material, as the track lengths get longer and Mono returns to sprawling build-ups and instrumentation that moves between minimalism and maximalism.  I appreciate that the drums still play as prominent as a role as they did on the group’s last two effort, as it makes songs like “Run On” pop a bit more at their peaks with diverse rhythms and a bit more variation than is typical for the genre.  There has always been a considerable amount of beauty in Mono’s compositions, and this is best represented early on with the airier and entrancing melodies on “Hear the Wind Sing”, which remains bright even at its loudest points. 

The first half certainly has its fair share of stunning moments, but the second half is where Oath holds some of its highest peaks.  “Hourglass” is the only short interlude type song before a run of longer pieces, but it has some of that same mystery and wonder as “Us, Then” and “Then, Us”.  “Moonlight Drawing” builds methodically with much softer layers until around the three-quarter mark when it lets the distortion of the guitar take over, and while this might be the most stereotypical use of the Mono formula on this side of Oath it remains compelling.  My favorite pieces are “Holy Winter” and “Time Goes By”, as the former has a more playful tone and looser rhythms while the latter uses the electronics and orchestration to full effect as it hits some of the loudest and most entrancing peaks the album has to offer.  Despite the somewhat daunting length of Oath, especially when the last four songs span a half hour, Mono makes a compelling case for the material to stretch outwards and take its time to explore these textures.  Oath finds the group once again working with Steve Albini for recording and mixing, and it ended up being one of the final albums Albini contributed to before his passing earlier in the year.  It definitely gives some of the somber and reflective passages a bit more emotional weight, but I found myself thinking it also serves as a great example of just what he could help bands achieve.  The way each instrument is able to breathe and shine on this album goes a long way in making the material that much more impactful, providing some genuine balance rather than overproduction.

Mono’s latest album is beautiful even during its darker and sparser moments, and while the more contemplative and methodical approach demands more of the listener to pick out all the nuances the band provides plenty of compelling reasons to spend the time to do so.  There are a few of the songs that are just a bit overstretched and padded out, particularly on the first half, but the amount of passages that have stuck with me over time makes up for it.  There’s a consistent flow to Oath that compels you to experience it from beginning to end, as there definitely are some film score ebbs and flows, and while it may not have injected quite as many different elements as the last few albums the songwriting is just as strong.  Oath is available from Temporary Residence Ltd. and Pelagic Records.

-Review by Chris Dahlberg