Mono Holy Ground: NYC Live

[Temporary Residence; 2010]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: instrumental extreme rock
Others: Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor

The band-plus-symphony live album is nothing new. Portishead did it in 1998, mixing Beth Gibbons’ lovely voice with the New York Philharmonic at the Roseland Ballroom. Metallica tried it in 1999, recruiting Michael Kamen to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for what is arguably the best performance in the back half of their catalog. But neither of these artists’ music is inherently symphonic to begin with. Sure, Metallica pinched whole phrases from Gustav Holst and regularly nipped other classical works for their early thrash, but their music never had anything more than the grand flow of symphonic strings, the thundering bombast of tympani.

Mono is one of the few bands overtly influenced by classical music to try the rock and symphony bit, and from the record we have with Holy Ground: NYC Live, the results are astonishing. Rather than simply reinterpreting their songs with a symphonic counterpart, the band allows the music to stretch and grow, filling the Society for Ethical Culture Hall with waves of guitar reverb pitted against the soft moan of cellos and violins. In this context, a song like “Pure as Snow” becomes a journey, an excursion much like the walk through the wintry woods depicted in Dimitri Galuret’s video for last year’s Hymn to the Immortal Wind track “Follow the Map.”

In like fashion, “Burial at Sea” extends the ocean metaphors and nautical themes to drift among underwater tidal flows. Surpassing the studio version, this rendering captures the claustrophobic feel of the weight of the water, and here’s where the added DVD comes in handy. To see Mono work through these songs with The Wordless Music Orchestra is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. On stage, lead guitarist Takaakira Goto plucks the soothing melodies for songs like “Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn,” while drummer Yasunori Takada punctuates every phrase with marked measures of snare and hi-hat, cymbals and toms.

The difficulty in reviewing a live album is that the material isn’t new to anyone, and unless the show adds some new element or re-imagines the songs in some way, there’s not much to comment on other than the musicianship and the production. Still, Holy Ground redefines what we’ve come to think of as the obligatory live CD/DVD combination. It moves beyond documentation to portray something far more entertaining: a great performance in every sense of the word.

Links: Mono - Temporary Residence

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