MONO on stage at Gabe’s. Wednesday, June 28, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann
MONO returned to Iowa City after just over a year touring on 2016’s Requiem for Hell. The crowd was oddly thin, but appropriate: it was perhaps the quietest that I had heard Gabe’s during a show. The band was illuminated with a quiet red light, and throughout their set the band seemed to play around its steadfast glow. The light was warm, and evoked a sense of patience that let each band member’s instrument enter into, and exit from, each song. The distinct contribution of each performer could be acknowledged and recognized. Both the band and the audience were equally engaged at the occurrence of sound as it sprang forth from the stage: All present were enraptured at its production, in its occurrence.
There’s patience and precision as MONO constructs a sonic canvass, tones like brush strokes that add together in time instead of space. The careful artistry allows the sounds to persist in obedience to the demands of the song — when the song ends it becomes drilled into a sudden silence that the audience respects before breaking into an awe-struck applause.
The songs built with a slow majesty, guided sometimes by xylophone, sometimes by keys, sometimes by guitar. The melodies start simply, announcing themselves and gaining a foothold before the rest of the band envelops and girds them. Delicate chords signal the termination of an instrument, a small break before the drum and bass introduce a new wave of sound that becomes necessary to the song’s culmination. Each performer is attentive to the needs and demands of the song. And in this way, the songs grow as a passionate surging wave of music, that the performers embody. The churn of distortion mirrors the cadence of the drums, which resonates and rumbles with the streaks of electronic sounds that the guitar allows to float above the rest.
Their music requires effort — the attention of the audience, the attunement of each instrument. As several songs were sustained by the guitars past the work of the drummers, the drummer would lean forward with the poise and air of an exhausted penitent. The guitarist, who had collapsed to the floor as he hunted the song, would seem overcome. But each new song would start anew, as if each was an opportunity for the quartet to explore a familiar landscape that needed to be recreated with each step. MONO thus demonstrated how, even when weary, fortitude —
shown through enduring continuation — is ultimately rewarded with its fulfillment in community.
Part of the effort is a work of restraint: As they play, they seem like Erich Zann, whose violin provides a weird defense against an onslaught nothing else can intuit. MONO is more tuneful than Lovecraft’s description of Zann’s music, and allows them to create delicate, textured explorations of hell without overwhelming the audience. Instead, their exertion creates a quiet place of solace, like the red light, amidst the noises that their instruments simultaneously urge forth but keep quietly contained — preserving the space. Sometimes, instead, the band would unleash the sound and spur on its frenzy — although even here, the guitar would shimmer delicately and allow the sounds to become a thunderstorm of joy, gliding over the mighty pulsations of the drums and the bass.
By the end of the night, one could occasionally overhear a conversation from the back. As a whole, however, MONO’s set was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful performances I’ve seen at Gabe’s. The audience, like the band, was aware that the moments shared approached what a theologian might call “sacred.” Something occurred in the room as we bore witness to the music. Beauty happened — but like all beauty, it faded into silence as the lights went on and the crowd dispersed into the cloud-filled evening.