Two decades after forming and some 18 years since releasing Under the Pipal Tree, their debut album on Tzadik, Japan's Mono return to the basics on the remarkably raw Before the Past. Most bands revisit catalog material when they have nothing left to say or are blocked and trying to find fresh inspiration. Mono's brief look in the rearview on Before the Past proves neither is the case. Earlier in 2019 they delivered Nowhere Now Here, adding a healthy dose of electronics and Mellotron to the band's sonic palette, and showcased their first personnel change with new drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla. They undertook a wildly eventful world tour to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Since Mono first utilized a cello on Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined in 2004, they've continued to add dimensions on their recordings: They've employed entire string sections and choirs, orchestral percussion, ambient textures, and noise, creating a body of music that straddles the abyss of heavy metal, post-rock, and contemporary classical music.
These three songs, which date from their first two albums, were cut in a single day -- just as Under the Pipal Tree was -- with longtime collaborator Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. There are no overdubs, add-ons, or multi-tracks; this EP is all crackling energy, synergy, and purpose. Opener "Com(?)" was originally cut for 2003's One Step More and You Die and is even longer here. It starts far more slowly, informed by the passage of time and the glorious exploration of loss and absence that has been part of the band's M.O. since Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain. The waltz tempo and sparse melodic vamp are added so gradually that when the track begins to crack open at 2:22, it's not about building up, but stripping down to essences: intensity, volume, noise, and soul. A dub-like reverb takes the track down to near silence in the middle before roaring to life again, releasing orgiastic tension and pathos in the process. "L'America," a brief ballad from Under the Pipal Tree, follows, underscoring just how expressionist Mono are in their pursuit of harmony. Closer "Halo" is the bookend from One Step More and You Die. Also in waltz time, it merges the group's two personae in a gloriously dreamlike, visceral whole. Abundant with drama amid waves of crashing feedback and bass overtones, the slowly shuffling drum kit informs layers of detuned guitar and amplified power. Its majesty is an expression of the purest melancholy that one feels in the aftermath of an arresting encounter with absolute beauty. Before the Past is Mono returning to pure expression in the moment by re-absorbing the inspirational building blocks that have made their mature sound physically and emotionally moving, and perhaps even transformational.