I have never been in Japan but I always wanted to. I will go one day, sure.
Any encounter I have with Japanese culture is mesmerizing. It discloses a reality which I don’t know if it is attractive for being so different or it is so different to become attractive.
To a western mind, split from the body since ancient Greek philosophers, Japan looks like a culture clash that can accommodate close things that this side of the world will never be together. in fact, body with mind, ancient traditions and futuristic technologies. Japanese music translates this into love for classicism and technique as well as need of escaping the rules with loud metal, grindcore, avantgarde jazz and rock radicalism.
Not surprisingly if these extremes sensitivities join in the same band, they give birth to a music such as Mono‘s bold post-rock.
I was at Scala for a Mono concert back in 2007, not only the first concert I saw of them but also one of the very first times I listened to them.
With shoegazer guitarist Jesu opening that show, what I remember of that gig is an unbearably loud volume, ears submerged by layers of distorted guitars, feedback and noise. Plus a dreamy Japanese girl, with long waving hair, fully immersed, body and mind, on her bass. Both her sides two guitarists so deeply involved to sit, stand, kneel depending what music was being played.
Visually it made sense, music wise had moments that risked to be gratuitously excessive.
In the three years passed since that show, I became much more acquainted with Mono post-rock. I listened to their several records many times.
Then it came Mono latest fatigue.
Hymn to the Immortal Wind arrived sometime in 2009 and is the album in which Mono finally manage to reach the equilibrium among all their facets.
It is one of those rare albums which I fall in love at first listening. Actually I fell in love with the album after the first 2 minutes of the opening suite: Ashes in the Snow.
From the vibraphone, who plays a sort of Japanese inspired melody, to the guitars, arriving quietly to enhance it, the suite evolves in a wonderful crescendo.
From that song, the entire album depicts a snowy soundscape which made me company on several lonely nights over this endless winter. Winter which is officially over in few hours.
Mono music makes me dream. It has the power to bring my mind somewhere else. It can be very cinematographic, a soundtrack for a dramatic documentary. It can be epic or delicate, so grand to the point of being “too much” but never trespassing that limit.
I cannot think anything better to celebrate the end of such a harsh period, which gave me some of the hardest time of my life, than a Mono concert.
Scala tonight is packed. Many Japanese people came for their heroes but I can hear several languages, a multitude of accents proving Mono are well beyond their barriers. A band loved by everyone, not frequent for a full Japanese line-up which doesn’t compromise too much to the “western music” beyond the songs’ titles (which are in English). Post-Rock is beyond barriers.
Barriers that are absent in the front stage too, so that I have to fight my way to get to the front.
Post-rock fans are like post-rock music. Quiet and peaceful as long as the show goes quietly and peacefully, accumulating energy to the edge of erupting during the crescendos, gush in completely madness during the sound explosions that bands as Mono build as clever and skilled music architects.
Being allowed to shoot the first two songs at a Mono gig is like being allowed to shoot the first six at any other indie-rock concert so it’s a bargain. The concert opens with Ashes From The Snow and Burial at Sea as the latest album. I would love to enjoy the music directly instead of through a camera lens, nevermind.
A glance at the setlist tells me that is Kidnapper Bells that follows. A piece taken from the debut album, Under the Pipal Tree. An album published on John Zorn label Tzadik that sounds a bit more angular and guitar overloaded than the recent releases. Closer to shoegaze, experimentalism and noise more than post-rock but still with all the elements of Mono‘s mathematic approach to music composition in place.
Back to today winter, Pure As Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm) does what the title says. A quiet piece that wanders on a snow-white canvas until it finds its way to the eruption of guitars, the winter storm. Even the less imaginative person can visualize the landscapes that Mono put on, but the magic arises from the poetic vision that differentiate Japanese Zen sensitivity from the western materialism.
Sabbath is a shorter piece from their second album: One Step More and You Die, their darkest work. From the title to the first track, the band struggles with big questions “Where am I?”. Sabbath opens with the two guitarists Takaakira Goto and Yoda in an intimate (musical) dialogue, then Tamaki Kunishi, the girl on bass, arrives to join the discussion and, as any woman joining two men chatting, diverts it. Yasunori Takada drumming keeps the three on track with its perpetual beat.
Yearning is from You Are There, their previous and one of my favourite albums. Mono‘s formula repeats. Quiet guitars play a simple line which gets imperceptibly and continuously modified. It increases in volume and complexity, build up the tension to the point that can’t be hold anymore and burst into waves of noise that make the crowd heads waving in time. Drumming is always sumptuous with frequent use of different mallets, brushes and a huge gong on the back to remind their Buddhist tradition.
Tamaki leaves her loved Gibson bass to play the keyboard on Follow The Map. A short piece that for once twists the scheme and become an intense moment of the night. During the 4 minutes there is not space to alternate the quiet-loud-quiet classic post-rock format. If Mono are at their best playing long slow suites that stress the listeners to their need of giving vent to the pressure providing the loudness, crafting a simple piano melody supported by coatings of whispered guitars is a different offering, simple and effective.
Halcyon (Beautiful Days) from the Steve Albini recorded and bizarrely titled, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined album, tonight doesn’t have the strings of the original arrangement but still sounds epic. The explosion here arrives abruptly as if it is not possible to control it.
The opus is included in the upcoming live album Mono recorded in New York with a 24 piece orchestra. A double CD Holy Ground: NYC Live With The Wordless Music Orchestra which is out in few weeks. It is already on my Amazon wish list.
The concert closes almost two hours later with Everlasting Night, the last song of their last album Hymn to the Immortal Wind. Ten more minutes of grandiosity, with Tamaki Kunishi playing the opening melody at the keys before getting back to the centre of the stage, to her bass.
No need of an encore, Mono‘s music has evolved and became very convincing. Not only during the ten years since their more radical sound at the John Zorn court, but also in this last three since I saw them here at Scala.
It is difficult to say if they paint landscapes with music or compose music for landscapes, but as anyone has experienced facing the vastity of nature, the balance of silence and sound is fundamental to make the experience magic and Mono have finally reached that equilibrium.
That is what the audience experienced tonight. Instead of being overwhelmed by decibels, it was dandled in a almost mathematically perfect sinusoid of alternating quiet and loud, peace and anger, relax and stress… mind and body. Nothing more than a portrait of our everyday’s life, with a meditative Japanese twist.
I love reportage photography, that is were my visual imagery comes from.
The number one rule of reportage photography is “get close“.
Robert Capa much before rock music was invented stated “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough” and it is such a universal statement that applies to concert photography, at least the way I see it.
When I get to a gig where the stage is low, as Scala has, the pit is absent, dicto, after the struggle to get to the front you are pushed almost on stage by the excitement behind you. With the plus of a band that is within touching distance from you, but fully concentrated on their music, the magic can happen.
Lens-wise once you are close the wider the better, but I shot most of these pictures between 24mm and 35mm, so don’t give up because you have not a 14mm. Just don’t bring your 70-200mm there.
Very Wide-angle lenses allow unusual crops and angles, raise or lower your camera away from your eyefinder. Don’t point just shoot, this photos can often surprise. There is a reason why are not among the “normal lenses” class!
Closer shots with a wide-angle means including much more of the surrounding. Be careful, at gigs this means backlights and disturbing elements. Composition becomes important, correct exposure vital.
Composition is up to your experience and esthetic, I can’t really help but suggesting to avoid most of the stage things that wouldn’t add anything to you are trying to tell. If you are shooting a guitarist, his pedals and amplifiers are OK but the drum parts or mic pole are useless and disturbing. So be careful.
Exposure can be controlled in several ways on modern cameras. On film I tend to go fully manual, the latitude of exposure of B&W film is tolerant and I play just a bit with the aperture in case I see sudden changes of light.
With digital cameras matrix measuring lights in several areas, it works better. Spot measuring is ok if lights don’t change to often and the subject is not too lively. Otherwise I prefer to use compensation. Learn how the matrix works, it can be over or under sensitive on estimating the impact of backlights. Then you can overexpose +1 (or even more) when strong spots enters your frame.
Curiously, as with B&W negatives, I realized that even with digital files it is better having a raw file overexposed that underexposed.
As a nice policy behaviour, being very close to the musician does not exempt you to remember they are playing and you may be an intrusive nuisance, to them first , to the audience who’s enjoing the gig, second, and to any other photographer who doesn’t want to have your camera in the picture. Remember you are not alone.