Review Summary: The grandiose album title "Hymn to the Immortal Wind" is successfully translated into a soul-stirring marriage of tremendously epic post-rock and heartbreakingly gorgeous classical, pushing the limits of both genres and of the emotional spectrum.Hymn. to the Immortal. Wind.
Those very five words are no run of the mill words. They carry deep and intuitive spiritual connotations, a song of praise sung and written for the eternal rhythms of nature and existence. The phrase’s glorification of nature is quintessentially a product of the Land of the Rising Sun, the country with a sun on its flag and from which the haiku came. Those five words say so much more than just one line on a page, and yet it is the accompanying music, written by Japanese post-rock maestros Mono, that can say even more without saying a word. As an avid lyrics enthusiast, I rate instrumental music based on its ability to speak without lyrics, and though a sorrowful short story of lost love is written into the booklet and is beautiful and fitting enough to be worth reading all on its own or with the music, there is enough capability of Hymn to the Immortal Wind
to speak without words, and to say so much so powerfully that the music lives up to its majestic title.
Mono’s melodically oriented brand of post-rock is professional, polished, and epic, but their biggest trump card is a unification of post-rock and classical so seamless as to establish them as unique; their full chamber orchestra partners dwarf their once only occasional forays into the famously grandiose genre. Though Japan is an Eastern nexus for classical music, the band has stated lack of confidence in writing full orchestral scores in the past, instead relying on darkness and minimalism in post-rock soundscapes, and their success on Hymn to the Immortal Wind
proves their finest hour has come and their original style has come to fruition. Takaakira Goto and Hideki Suematsu, Tamaki Kunishi, and Yasunori Takada feel distinctly like a classical troupe with guitars, bass and drums plus percussion (respectively), by which they are able to combine the calm silences and earth-shattering volumes of both rock and classical into a symphony worthy of the word.
Ashes in the Snow
fades in with a bleak trail of faint amplifier static and a Japanese-styled xylophone melody, the multiple contrasts exquisite: the innocent charm of the xylophone belied by its sense of grief, and its warm melody and Far Eastern delicacy frozen stiff by the subarctic static. One disconsolate guitar line, then two, enters the arrangement, and about two minutes in, the guitars coalesce into reverb-treated tremolo, a technique common throughout the album to enhance its melancholy mood, and a cymbal flourish heralds the entrance of the orchestra. We are steadily raising our head as our loved one’s head falls for the last time, his body as dead as the landscape around and his spirit blowing away like ashes into the snow. The lead guitar rises and becomes foggier accordingly, and a snowblast of distortion obscures him from our sight, leaving us searching through the chalk-white forests. Bargaining sets in past six minutes as an achingly romantic theme on guitar and strings rises toward the skies, as if praying for his return; like many of the album's decidedly melodious soundscapes, it is tinged with an exotic delicacy that lends a distinct Far Eastern romantic flair to the tale being told. Mono has previously specialized in somewhat lengthy climaxes for post-rock of the 10-minute song length, and Kunishi’s sturdy bass climb pulls along the whole band to develop the stage of bargaining into depression and, if not closure, acceptance; monolithic guitars and percussion surge forwards for nearly two minutes, the rhythmic pulsation and heart-rending symphonic crescendo only growing more frantic until complete breakdown, a not rare emotional state throughout the remainder of the album.
"On this day the woman prepares for farewell. Heavy are his ashes, sinking in her hand. As she strains to let his remains go, she turns herself to the earth for an answer, a reminder of why she is here … Her eyes follow the flight of the ashes until they fade into falling snow before her – the same snow of the winter that they loved and perished here together."
Burial At Sea
channels Mono’s darker origins into its new style, opening up as its title suggests with a languid Hammond organ drone, a heart-monitor guitar rhythm, and blank bassline which introduce the elegy, after which rising guitar chimes slug the pace forward and build into a remote, aggrieved melodic progression behind a dreary percussive march. The emotions aroused are almost too painful to process: family and friends undertake a gloomy voyage on a gloomy sea to bury their loved one, begging for nothing more than to embrace a single time more, and yet the bottomless sea of deep strings surrounds and begs to embrace the departed. Perhaps the charcoal dystopia of Godspeed You! Black Emperor
, a frequently cited influence by critics, could be felt here, but Mono’s imagery is far more organic than the militaristic Canadians. The second movement begins from scratch guitar arpeggios, as if the ship, coffin, and mourners have settled into position to bury the departed. Orchestration returns as the harmonic contrast becomes significantly tenser, as if signaling something wrong. Mono hoist post-rock conventions by their own petard by layering on a steady bass anchor, wispy tremolo and orchestra doubling, insistent percussive pounding, and steadily more distorted walls of guitar noise; they blatantly telegraph multiplying the volume again and again until breaking point, but only to multiply the impact, to make the prophecy as fearsome as the apocalypse. The sounds could be interpreted as the coffin’s wrenching descent into the cavernous ocean, or in an even more tragic turn of events, the ship capsizing and drowning the entire assembly. Everybody knows the ship’s hull has burst, everybody knows it’s sinking, and even when, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The rhythm and lead guitar lines are obliterated by tsunamic noise, toppling towers of strings, and Takada turning his hammering the drumkit into supersonic bludgeoning, while it can be distinctly heard that Kunishi is slamming bass chords in rhythm with the percussion, their clanking tone resembling collapsing steel machinery. Few post-rock bassists are as intelligently used as her in the greater soundscape, one so harrowingly engulfing that it is among the best passages on the whole album.
Feedback-laden hissing wreckage disperses into a pattering guitar carried into Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn
, the first of two almost completely orchestral interludes; its nocturnal oboes and strings back a watery piano, and the piece undergoes a truly cinematic transformation when the strings intermingle with the piano and take the lead, the sparser piano but thicker strings seeming to tick away the remaining minutes of a lonely, heartbroken night on which each minute feels ever more like an eternity. That winter midnight arrives, desolate inside and outside the protagonist. Pure as Snow
gently fades in with an icy drone and a glacial chord structure, a solitary snowflake which piles up into a solemn, steady snow over four minutes with the supplementation of a trickling chord, twinkling cymbals behind a floaty drumbeat, swirling strings, and the eventual melting of that melodic trickle into a river of tremolo guitar and weeping strings. A brief respite seems to frame the progression’s resurgence in a new light, permitting it to build afresh as the Trails of the Winter Storm
so described in the piece’s subtitle are intensified by steady timpani battering and shadowy blankets of distorted melodies into a howling blizzard of white noise, and the slippery drumming patterns eventually stop as the whole landscape freezes from top to bottom. Follow the Map
runs under four minutes, but packs its emotional punch all the same, its first piano theme impatient as it seems to have discovered the route back to who we have missed all these years, its second theme played on piano and glockenspiel and then eventually reinterpreted with the full orchestra once that discovery is confirmed. The orchestra’s very evocative instructions on how to play, in the vein of “with the gentle beauty of flowing water,” help channel nature’s divine beauty into the music itself; the orchestra soars expectantly, but with just as intense grief as all the memories of him resurface in a rush.
"Ever changing, growing, and searching through stretches of time beyond life and death. This is the journey that every soul makes. My journey always brings me to the place between wake and sleep, a landscape of memories, where you and I meet again and again. Even in the darkest night, in the heaviest storm, I always find my way back to you. When you remember, please come back to the place we both know."
The trails of memory lead from this world to the next, through the titanic battle deserving of the longest piece, the 13-minute The Battle to Heaven
. The light at the end of the tunnel appears nothing more than a speck of amplifier static, but determination to reach it surfaces immediately through a rumbling bass walk, a cavernous guitar arpeggio, and Takada’s strolling drumline, basic but effective for it. The increased volume of his playing and the surprising snuffle of a hi-hat’s resonance, seemingly a phrasing error but adding a note of uncertainty instead, along with Kunishi’s strumming bass, amplify the tension and urgency as the ethereal light grows closer. An electrified development of this theme and timpani stomping swell our speed until we run out of breath. The guitar harmonics that play constantly over the entire second movement reward our virtuous perseverance by carrying us up the ladder into heaven itself, and amongst the mystical climbing guitar leads and billowing cymbals, a Gregorian chant-like empyreal fluorescence can be heard, growing more tantalizing by the second. Such subtle touches saying so much prove Mono’s mastery. Takada begins letting loose on his drumkit, his leaping and bounding fills an Olympian marathon in pursuit of the oldest, most archetypal of human dreams. Ear-piercing distortion interferes with the tranquility and the percussion turns to thunderous knocking as blows from fallen angels attempt to shake us off the ladder and make paradise lost. Such elevated of thematic connections cement Hymn to the Immortal Wind
’s timeless aura, and yet it is grand finale Everlasting Light
which is most profound and timeless of all. Although initially tinged with sorrow like the rest of the album, it is written in a major tonality, as the celestial rendezvous was successful; it took every second of their entire lives, but the childhood friends are together again, and they now cross the bridge into paradise together. Opening with a conclusive piano and sparse guitar movement, later reinterpreted with piano and strings, and eventually with sparse piano and one of the most devastatingly gorgeous, fragile guitar melodies ever discovered, then swelling dramatically into a deafening yet angelic four-minute crescendo, the piece literally feels like lying on my deathbed, satisfied with my life and saying my last goodbyes to everyone and everything around me, feeling an irresistible pull into the afterlife in my last seconds, and eventually crossing over and being welcomed into the glories of heaven itself by everybody gone before me. It is rare for me to hear any portion of the piece without walking away profoundly moved, and I frequently experience complete emotional breakdown multiple times within the song.
When a close friend of mine and her very special young son moved out of town this summer, Hymn to the Immortal Wind
was the achingly yearning soundtrack. The weather was bleak and rainy as the hour approached and for hours upon hours afterwards, seeming to read and understand my feelings, but as the album gently precipitated through my speakers, all the sorrow accumulated over months of preparing to bid farewell was washed away, and I looked outside the window after the final note faded out to see the rain over and the sun brightly shining. It was a heavenly sign that, from then on, brought me to a measure of closure far quicker than I had anticipated. Ever since, the whole album became dedicated to them, and only then did I feel fully ready to attempt reviewing it. The only criticisms I can level at it are the frequent recycling of musical devices, sometimes the quiet-loud dynamic so common to post-rock but also the liberal application of thudding percussion to build tension in the same predictable double-time rhythm, and the brickwalled mastering which is very reprehensible for post-rock; dynamics are an essential component of post-rock and classical, and in fact are heretical in classical recordings, and the poor dynamic range, though significantly better than the horrendously compressed For My Parents
immediately following, muffles some of the otherwise very clear instrumentation and Mono’s affinity for eardrum-bursting climaxes. Their samurai swords are only barely dulled, as Mono's music has resurrected emotions and moods of intensities I did not know existed until now. I have recently begun exploring post-rock, but also grew up around classical music, and this album has both inspired me to search out more post-rock and reignited my admiration for classical; as a Catholic, I was also profoundly touched by this album on a spiritual plane, at a strength beyond anything else I had yet encountered in those two genres, and in its finest moments, beyond all but a very select few musical treasures. Whether Goto can hope to touch this album’s inspiration and thematic target, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, is unlikely, but the heights reached by Hymn to the Immortal Wind
are nevertheless undoubtedly immortal.
"We are not bound by the passing of time. Underneath every layer of the vessel that we call the body, there lies only the soul, where memory lives on."
Originally written for Lady Obscure Music Magazine