- Mono: Beyond words, but you can feel it.
Last October, two teenagers in a steel-pole cage at a North Carolina rock club relinquished ironic indifference for sex through music. Alternately standing and sitting, arms constantly around one another, they touched, hugged, and kissed during Mono, a Japanese instrumental rock quartet that specializes in slow-burning guitar crescendos and shrapnel-slinging fallout.
The quartet is easy to get lost in, roaring and whispering through intoxicating, weblike ebbs and flows. During the 15-minute centerpiece from their 2003 album, One Step More and You Die, the kids fell into that flow.
Awash in sound, they found their place. The couple locked arms and stood transfixed, gazing off as Mono let the amps ride at full force. It blew wide open, maximum volume killing itself for the sake of near-silence, the song crashing down as the couple did the same, slinking to the least-lit recess of the cage where they enjoyed a post-coital cigarette. They burned as the band played on, needing a moment of respite after such an ecstatic climax.
In the past decade, instrumental rock music has reached intriguing popularity, led by bands like Mogwai and, more recently, Explosions in the Sky, Mono's labelmate on Texas-based Temporary Residence Limited. In a big way, instrumental rock music is about appealing to animal instincts, turning that melodrama into something primal, pure, and potent. The genre's increasing popularity is directly related to its ability to simulate feelings -- sadness, elation, orgasms -- in high-volume hypercolor.
After all, there are no vocal hooks on which to hang, no clever twists of phrase from which to pontificate. The riffs must claw and scrape to be memorable, as the music runs melodies into valleys and back up peaks, providing a narrative flow without a narrator.
At its best, instrumental rock music (superficially termed post-rock) mimics the carnal. Mono and tourmates Pelican both specialize in the climax, though their methods are different: The ends are equal, but the means can be masturbatory or consensual.
Mono proceeds as cooperatively as possible, music unfolding as sex -- slowly building, urgently releasing, cuddling in exhaustion. Chicago's Pelican sees sexual fulfillment as autogratification, beating the same theme over and over in numbing, heavy-handed fashion.
The basic difference lies in Pelican founder and guitarist Laurent Lebec's group approach. All the songs stem from his riffs. In conversation, he's quick to point out that this isn't a jam band; all the parts have their place, and none of it is extraneous instrumental riffage meant simply to make the songs longer.
"A lot of bands get to the point where they're noodling and wanking, and people will say to us even, 'Oh, you're stretching this part for too long, blah blah.' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about?'" says Lebec, irritated with his critics, while relaxing after a show in Asheville, North Carolina.
"I understand that sometimes people won't wrap themselves around tempo shifts or shifts that I'm feeling, that I know are there, that may be subtler. But I know what motions we're going through, and I know we've never done a song where we're drilling a part for too long."
But Pelican's self-interest is its biggest fault: Everything seems scripted, canned, overly consistent, and like masturbation, it's developed into a rote, self-congratulatory routine. It's difficult to join in another's autoeroticism. The rise and fall implicit in the dynamic of a band that's so sonically massive is stilted, falling more or less to the binary categories of loud and louder -- an attempt to get off by sheer power rather than finesse.
Admittedly, at times that force is captivating. Pelican roars in transcendent fashion, bass player Larry Herweg sliding behind Lebec in the melody's movement and guitarist Trevor DeBrauw splitting the difference through sheets of noise and countermelodies. As a band, Pelican gets its release.
And it's exploring new avenues for fulfillment. The group's earliest stuff was its simplest: two chords pummeled again and again through charges of amplification and a booming rhythm section. Now, the changes are more complex, incorporating acoustic guitars and scoring melodies across different instruments to add interest. In essence, the band is a 14-year-old boy who has just realized that furious tugging and pulling will eventually get the job done, but a little more preparation may go a long way in making things feel better. Lebec says it's all spontaneous too -- that the band never discusses ways to make its music more complex. The members, he maintains, have just evolved in the same way.
But even twin brothers develop at varying rates (Pelican's rhythm section is fraternal), and what works for one family won't necessarily work for another. Live, Pelican is discordant and dismally boring, drummer Bryan Herweg playing overactive drum fills and stuffy double-bass rounds like he's gigging eternally with an overly ambitious local metal band. Meanwhile, the rest of the group continues to power-drill convoluted progressions and riffs, even when the well is dry. It's like trying to stay interested as four best friends furiously masturbate for completely different reasons, while insisting it's blissful group sex.
Mono, however, is more reminiscent of the sharing implied by great sex -- a communal approach to climax that's as blissful as it gets. The band's four members understand one another, and they move as a cohesive, intimately knowledgeable unit -- even when the parts they are playing temporarily veer. Lebec denies the cumbersome post-rock tag for Pelican, but no band better fits the description than Mono: The quartet uses rock instruments -- two guitars, bass, drums, pedals, keyboards, the occasional string swath -- to make intricate 2-to-15-minute songs that pack the emotional impact and urgency of rock and roll at its best. Mono breathes and sweats sex, full of motion, generous build, and ultimate release.
True, Mono has a formula as well, and it sometimes requires long periods of time to deliver the payload. For this group, anticipation is tantamount to enjoyment: The band almost always crawls into the proceedings, building mood with guitar drifts and calculated cymbal rolls. Things heat up gradually, on a continuum of volume that gathers itself into an explosion, guitars screaming, bass throbbing, drums flailing. Eventually, it all falls away, collected parts disassembling, perhaps recharging for a second coming or drifting off, listener in tow, to a gentle sleep that carries you with it.
Like sex, the experience is beyond words, but you can feel it.