On tour promoting their latest EP, Tao Fire 道火, Taiwanese duo Mong Tong headlined a night of myth and mystery in Bristol with support from maya ongaku.
It’s not at every gig that one of the organisers comes round and politely informs you the band will be on in five minutes. But as well as feeling like an exceptionally tight ship, tonight’s show was also one where you really didn’t want to miss a moment.
With its familiar mirror-ball casting soft twinkles and its walls dotted with glow-in-the-dark Halloween eyes, the back room at Crofters Rights quickly filled up with eager listeners, out in impressive numbers for a drizzly Tuesday evening.
Dressed in crisp white jumpers, electronic trio maya ongaku took their positions, the stage bathed in blue-green light. And their set was a thing of beauty. Hailing from Enoshima in Japan, long-time friends Tsutomu Sonoda, Ryota Takano, and Shoei Ikeda are masters of their craft: layers of woodwinds, samples, discombobulated riffs, birdsong, and fuzzy-soft vocals build into stretches of reverie, huge and subaquatic.
While some ambient live music can tend towards the soporific, maya ongaku’s sound is as dynamic and stirring as it is deeply reflective. They plunged into the dreamworld, lilted into jazz, and threw themselves headlong into frenetic percussive whirlwinds. Ikeda’s saxophone and flute and Sonoda’s guitar frequently stepped in together, spiralling up and out, tentacled and lovely. Tracks didn’t so much begin and end as blur into one another. In one, rainsticks, soft shakers, and water sounds lent a tactile and organic dimension, while in the next, rhythmic, and rubbery arpeggiators (with pleasing Mike Oldfield vibes) were hypnotic and toe-tapping.
Three people in front of us in the crowd were so excited about the music – punching the air, hugging each other – it was an absolute joy to see. “Fucking delicious!” one of them exclaimed, to laughter all round. And I definitely wouldn’t argue.
Stepping back in after the break, we caught a rare sight of Mong Tong – Taiwanese brothers Hom Yu and Jiun Chi – without their signature blindfolds. But the sense of ceremony was soon regained as they tied black scarves over their eyes and launched in. With a set-up consisting of guitar, bass, synths, and electronic drum pads, they take what seems like a minimal approach. But what they do with these elements is far from simplistic: layering intense percussion, spoken samples, analogue fragments, and rich bass and guitar, they produce a multifaceted sound with echoes of nature and ancient legend as well as videogame worlds.
The duo have created something cohesive and intentionally surprising with Mong Tong. Storytelling and mystery are tightly stitched into their music, which (as they have explained in an interview with Brian Hioe) draws on “conspiracy theories or myths,” but also “a sense of a different world.” Seasoned performers in more conventional bands, they were keen to sculpt something new and experimental with this project; something they have described as between electronic and rock. Omnivorous in its reference points, it can feel dizzying (even more so if you venture into the videos for the fever-dream Tropic Sub or the glitchy, paranoid Taiwan Mystery), but this is music to lean into and to hold loosely. It swells and glows and bleeds out of its lines, but there’s no murk. Maybe it has something to do with their streamlined set-up: even with melting tangents of distorted guitar, there’s something about the electronic backdrop in place of a full band that feels sharp and portable.
I last saw Mong Tong supporting the legendary Japanese psych rock band Kikagaku Moyo (whose label, Guruguru Brain, hosts both Mong Tong’s and maya ongaku’s music) at the Clapham Grand last summer. I was curious this time to see how such a different venue would reshape the experience of Mong Tong’s live music. And, while they more than capably filled that vast and ornate theatre, the black box of Crofters’ back room lent itself to an intimate and all-encompassing affair, and one of the lushest, most deeply enjoyable performances I’ve seen this year.
Mong Tong links:
Maya ongaku links: