SAN FRANCISCO — After the Japanese drone outfit Mono filed onto the stage at The Great American Music Hall to the soothing synthesized sounds of “God Bless,” the quintet launched immediately into the tempestuous wall of sound that is “After You Comes the Flood.” The dynamic juxtaposition between the first two songs on the band’s latest album, Nowhere Now Here, set the pace as the band moved between sparse minimalism and precise explosions of driving sound that seemed to contain every frequency in the audio spectrum.
Mono’s latest tour celebrates its 20th year—the band formed in Tokyo in 1999—as well as its new album that was released in January. The band’s unique sound seems to draw from every corner of shoegaze universe; from the swirling chaos of My Bloody Valentine to the reverb-drenched majesty of Disintegration-era Cure, to the white noise barrages of Sonic Youth and the layered guitar noise of Glenn Branca.
Guitarists Takaakira “Taka” Goto and Hideki “Yoda” Suematsu sat in chairs so that they could manipulate their many effects pedals. Vocalist-bassist Tamaki Kunishi stood at the center of the stage, swaying to the music with her long hair in her face. The band’s torrent of sound seemed to fill the venue entirely, but occasionally one of the guitarists would unleash a sonic chem trail that cut across the musical landscape.
The second song, “Death and Rebirth,” from 2016’s Requiem for Hell, began with mellow chiming guitars over kick drum quarter notes. Drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla deftly built the song’s intensity with intricate snare work and a wash of cymbal noise. The band suddenly exploded again as guitar noise broke over the audience.
The music sounded carefully composed while at the same time poised to careen off the tracks at any moment, another juxtaposition that made the music compelling. As the song grew to its cyclonic climax, Goto assumed vaguely Hendrix-like poses, resplendent in his theatrics. In the next moment, the sonic storm stopped on a dime.
The middle portion of the set focused on slower, more intricate pieces of music that managed to sound both sparse and lush. The syrupy and synth-heavy “Breathe,” from the band’s latest album, featured Kunishi’s haunting vocals as she stood and sang at a small keyboard at the side of the stage. When the song built to its full size the swirling guitars evoked both Pink Floyd and The Cocteau Twins.
Fans recognized new cut “Sorrow” and responded with enthusiasm. Kunishi moved back to the bass and her sinuous bass lines anchored the musical odyssey as the band created intricate guitar interplay that called to mind The Cure’s “A Forest.” No doubt it was this similarity that prompted Cure frontman, Robert Smith to personally request Mono play London’s Meltdown Festival in 2018.
The band continued the sparse, atmospheric vibe with “Meet Us Where the Night Ends” before launching into another crowd favorite, “Halcyon (Beautiful Days),” which had delivered an elegant sway via a vaguely rockabilly vibe.
Closing their set with “Ashes in the Snow” the band spent several minutes building a groove that featured glockenspiels but was quiet enough to permit an audience member who, unsure of the protocol, yelled “Encore!”
Eventually the intricate and reserved groove gave way to another titanic aural bombardment. While bassist Kunishi swayed more intensely to the throb of the music, the guitarists, now standing, delivered a four-note drone that ebbed and flowed. At its climax, the song, with its swirling sheets of sound, recalled the endless single-note rave-ups that close My Bloody Valentine shows.
The drummer and bassist filed off stage while the two guitar players unleashed dueling white noise assaults that both melted and abraded fans’ faces. Goto raised his fists over his head as his guitar lay on the stage, shooting feedback, before walking off.
The band quickly returned for an encore. Goto took to the microphone for the first time and thanked the crowd for its support before exclaiming, “20 years! Unbelievable!”
The final song, like many of the evening’s others, was a dynamic journey between sedate guitar interplay and swirling, screaming ribbons of white noise. As the cacophony reached its conclusion, Goto and Suematsu used their wah-wah pedals to create sharp bursts of white noise that cut through the all-out tonal assault. Cipolla punctuated the roar by striking a full-sized gong stationed behind his drumkit to conclude the barrage.
The evening began with an opening set from American singer-songwriter, Emma Ruth Rundle that included “Dark Horse” and “Control,” from her 2018 album, On Dark Horses, as well as “Protection,” from 2016’s Marked for Death. The set featured deep rumbling bass as well Rundle coaxing odd sounds from her guitar with a violin bow. After thanking Mono for taking her on tour, Rundle closed the set with a solo performance of “Real Big Sky.”