09 Sep 2023 - John O.
Post-Rock | Pelagic Records | Release date: 23 Mar 2023 | Favorite song: Lucia
Post-Rock pioneers Mono turn toward the light with a Christmas-themed release (and promises of Christmas releases in the future). The three-song EP stands among the group’s most accomplished works, incorporating an expansive Post-Rock anthem and two more contemplative and wistful excursions. Mono’s stated aim is to “express … the light without anxiety and sadness in life” - they achieve this goal by weaving power and buoyancy into a winning combination.
Christmas-themed music can be a dubious endeavor. Pop, Jazz, and Classical stars seem to have cornered the market on the often-saccharine genre, especially when it comes to recreating “standards”. Americans in particular seem to have their grasp tightly around the holiday, ramming a sort of gleefully mindless commercialism into all aspects of the Winter marker - from Christian-themed or gold, green, red, and silver tchotchkes sold in seemingly every store to the music that permeates every speaker within ear-shot of said stores.
I’m beginning to sound like a misanthrope. For the record, I love Christmas! I hang Christmas lights on my home and routinely plod out into the snow at night to take slow-shutter speed photos of them. We have a family gathering (sometimes more than one), and a Christmas tree, and labor for hours over the meal. But, years of being the Christmas music buyer at Tower Records have tainted the genre for me, to some degree. Looking at you, Trans Siberian Orchestra and Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Anyhow, from the perspective of unearthing gems from the music underground, one has to know where to look. While full albums seem a rarity, Low’s 1999 mini-album Christmas stands out. Pobbles ’recent Another Pobbles Christmas offers an updated take with their spin on Chiptune music and certainly there are no shortage of Vaporwave Christmas collections on YouTube. And, one-offs from various alternative acts are common enough - especially as such acts approach more mainstream status. Maybe it’s always been like this, with alternative acts relegated to various artists compilations. Maybe we like it that way - hustling and bustling to sounds that have nothing to do with a holiday theme or enjoying the unique sensibilities of warping Christmas tunes into something other, something perhaps even new.
Meanwhile, the entries from Jazz, Classical, and Pop are too numerous to mention. And often too sweet, too commercial, too calculated.
Stepping into this milieu, Mono released their all-too-brief EP Heaven Vol. 1 and announced they will seek to release a “heaven” themed mini-album every Christmas. So, not exactly “Christmas” music in the traditional sense, just released digitally on Christmas (with physical releases following when the manufacturing catches up).
Heaven Vol. 1 opens with a classic Post-Rock anthem, “Lucia” - replete with one of Mono’s signature heady guitar and keyboard intros, a slow build into soaring distortion and thunderous drums, and melodic hooks throughout. The track rightfully takes its place among the group’s pantheon of more celebrated songs - an ascent into “Heaven” through heavy riffing and a blissed-out soundscape.
“Smile” continues our journey into the netherworld above, conjuring vaguely saxophonic synths and tremulous ambience that gives way to a staid melody evocative of a hovering nostalgia for long-past holidays, remembered in a peaceful, drunken moment. The song closes sweetly, lilting to a twinkling counter-melody that whisks out of view like an interrupted memory.
The final track, “Silent Embrace” embarks further up into the light, driven in turns by rhythmic piano and pulsing bass lines - a perfect song for walking through the snow on a Winter morning. As the song progresses, more layers are added in turns, like the falling snow. The band’s restraint adds a kind of power and levity - despite the heavy snow all around us, we’re not trudging, but floating along in time.
With only three songs, the EP feels like it ends abruptly, leaving us wanting more and hinting at what’s to come. Alas, we’ll need to wait until this coming December to experience the next installment of Mono’s Heaven.