For music fans, few experiences rival the excitement you feel when a cherished artist releases new music. You've spent countless hours consuming their music that you can now recite any lyrics on command. Finally, when those beloved tracks seem to start losing their edge, the band drops a new song. You feel a certain kind of thrill at the possibility of listening to even more amazing and life-changing music. You almost forget that the record might sound completely mediocre, so great is your excitement. I have felt this experience with a number of bands, most recently with post-rock group Mogwai.
Ahead of the release of their ninth studio album, Every Country’s Sun, Scottish post-rockers Mogwai have released a couple tracks that have absolutely blown me away, namely “Party in the Dark” and “Coolverine”. Both tracks, while amazing, see the group venture off into new directions, which has pleased many fans while disgruntling others. In listening through the band’s discography, one should know that the group is anything but afraid to try out new and exciting sounds. This commitment to innovation has cemented the band as one of the best of the 21st century. Therefore, any new music from them is something to behold.
In any discussion about any band, you are likely to hear some pompous, self-righteous hipster utter the cringe worthy phrase, “Their first album really is their best. You know, before they went all mainstream and sold out.” I should know, I say this all the time. However, the opposite is usually true. Led Zeppelin’s first album was not their best. Neither was The Beatles’, Bowie’s, Pink Floyd’s, etc.
Mogwai, therefore, stick out, not only for writing their best album on the first try but also for composing a masterpiece that would go on to define an entire genre. This album, Mogwai Young Team (1997), still sounds incredibly innovative and refreshing, now some twenty years after its initial release. Being a huge fan of post-rock, I never realized the influence Mogwai had on so many bands until listening to this. The epic crescendos and creative use of sound bites that have become synonymous with post-rock were pioneered here.
One major highlight on the record can be found on “Tracy”. It is the ultimate guide on how to slowly build elements in a song, meticulously adding little details that expand the track like ripples through a pond. It starts off with a simple and soothingly melodic guitar chord, and the rest of the band slowly joins in. Essentially, you are watching a song being constructed before your very eyes.
Now, it would be impossible to talk about Mogwai Young Team without addressing the masterful track that closes it out, “Mogwai Fear Satan”. Over 16 minutes in length, the track’s title was inspired by bassist Dominic Aitchison’s overwhelming fear of the devil. As they are a post-rock band most tracks are instrumental, and therefore it is difficult to know how song titles affect the composition of the music. However, listening to this song, it seems there must be a connection. This behemoth traverses through a wide variety of emotions, enthralling but also suffocating. I imagine meeting the devil must feel a similar way. This track goes in directions I could never have predicted; around the four-minute mark, we are treated to a haunting mix of flute and tribal drums that lure you in seductively before pounding you with triumphant guitars, leaving you stunned.
While Young Team may not be my favorite Mogwai album, I cannot deny that it is by far their best. At this time, no one in post-rock was doing what they do on this album. Nowadays, there is little shortage of Mogwai rip-offs, taking the sounds created on Young Team, and trying in vain to make it their own. It’s like trying to make your own Dark Side of the Moon; how does one do that?
Needless to say, the hype surrounding the band after the release of their debut was monumental. You might think that Mogwai would work to outdo themselves on their next release with an even more invigorating record. Instead, always one to defy expectations, Mogwai released Come On Die Young (1999), easily their most easy-going and saddest record yet. With few exceptions, Mogwai stay away from the massive crescendos found throughout Young Team, electing to fill their tracks with methodical layers of instrumentation instead.
The one exception to this newfound tranquility can be found on “Ex-Cowboy”. While its pace can be described as anything but fast, the latter half of the track sees guitarist Stuart Braithwaite use heavy distortion that gives the song a completely new feel.
While an excellent record, the reception to this album was much more subdued than their previous effort, as trying to recreate a second Young Team is near impossible. How much this lack of reception affected the band members is unclear, but the subsequent years would see Mogwai continuously challenging convention and reshape their identity as a band.
40 Minute Masterpieces
In the genre of post-rock, it’s not unusual for an album to last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes long, way above the average for a studio album. In fact, Mogwai’s first two releases both clocked in at just over an hour. However, in 2001, the band dropped their third and most unusual album to date, Rock Action.
If you’re already familiar with Mogwai, it may have been due to the landmark track “Take Me Somewhere Nice”, which appears on Rock Action. It’s quintessential for the genre, complete with string arrangements, methodical progression, and even vocals, a rarity in post-rock. Many groups never include any vocals and stay completely instrumental, but Mogwai have never been afraid to do so, writing subtle lyrics that make an impact without consuming the whole track. And on this track, they succeed marvelously, with the vocals adding to the mournful atmosphere that has been curated.
Another wonderful song on this record is “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”. It’s as though they took all the various emotions found in a feature length film, and packed it into a single nine-minute track. It starts with inspiring guitars that find emotions wrought with despair, and the song then becomes this epic struggle to overcome these negative emotions. It is as cathartic an experience in music as you will ever participate in.
Their next album, the underrated Happy Songs for Happy People (2003), is a less complex effort. This is as close to a standard rock album that band has come so far. Songs like “Kids Will All Be Skeletons” and “Ratts at the Capital” see a more a more ethereal side to the group after the intense experimentation of Rock Action. However, “Hunted by a Freak”, the opener, remains one of the most sinister tracks ever. Layers of wailing guitars are topped off with vocal melodies that almost sound like cries for help. I always leave this track feeling completely unsettled.
In many ways, Mr. Beast (2006) feels like the sister record to Happy Songs. While not as good as its predecessor, Mr. Beast still contains tracks that show Mogwai at their absolute best. “Auto Rock” is a fantastic opener that accurately sets the mood of this dark and tortured record. If this song sets the tone, then “Glasgow Mega Snake” pummels it into submission, with blaring leads that sound incredibly metal. While not every track is perfect, the albums still contain the experimentation that has made Mogwai so well known over the years. The challenge would be continuing to innovate as the years began to pile on.
If ever there was a divisive moment amongst Mogwai fans, it came with the release of The Hawk Is Howling. The album, while not technically bad by any means, sees the band sort of phone it in, in terms of experimentation. The post-rock on this record has been done a million times by other groups, and Mogwai do little to advance the sound any further. The album does contain some of the band’s most outlandish song titles, with gems like “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” and “The Sun Smells Too Loud”. The latter is actually a terrific track, with quirky little guitars that feel refreshing after multiple albums of nearly unbearable sadness.
While certainly not their best, this would be my recommendation for best Mogwai album for beginners, especially if you aren’t familiar post-rock. You’ll get a basic idea of the sound without the crazy experiments that sometimes turn people off.
In 2011, it was difficult to tell exactly where the band was going. Having released six albums of various shapes and sizes, it was a mystery to see what they had in store next. They responded by releasing their best record since Young Team with the seminal Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.
On this record, long winded epics have given way to a more poppy sound. I’m not sure any other Mogwai record contains so many hits. “Mexican Grand Prix”, “Rano Pano”, and “San Pedro” would all be lead singles on any other album, with a straightforward sound that combines both rock and electronic music. Producer Paul Savage, who also mixed Young Team, gives the album this incredibly tight feel, whereas most of their albums feel like they might wind on for eternity. It’s this immediacy that I find incredibly captivating; “San Pedro” actually leaves me dancing, something I thought I’d never do on a Mogwai song.
Without a doubt, Hardcore Will Never Die is the band’s strongest and most cohesive record to date, as well as being a personal favorite. It’s difficult to find post-rock albums that truly kick ass, and that’s what this album delivers with every track. The record serves as a not so gentle reminder that Mogwai are a rock band at heart, capable of providing some headbang-worthy music. Tracks like “Letters to the Metro” are on the slower side, but fail to dampen the atmosphere. In fact, they provide for a more complete listening experience. If you only listen to one record after reading this article, let it be this one.
When Synths Attack!
The band’s most recent release, Rave Tapes (2014), sees Mogwai once again back to their consistently innovative ways. This latest innovation involves drenching nearly every instrument in layers of synthesizers. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone. That’s not to say it’s a bad album, but I find synths can be that instrument that instantly turns of a large chunk of listeners. The only time I find myself listening to Rave Tapes is right before bed, when I’m trying desperately to lull myself to sleep. If anything, this record’s crime is being completely unmemorable. I can’t evern think of any songs worth highlighting from it. However, if synths are more your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this more than the average Mogwai fan.
And now, on the cusp of the release of Mogwai’s ninth album, we are greeted with singles that continue the band’s utilizing of synths. However, these songs sound much more raw and dark than anything on Rave Tapes. I feel incredibly apprehensive for Every Country’s Sun, as I feel it could either be one of the Mogwai’s best or worst records. No matter what final product sounds like, though, I know I can always turn back to several landmark albums that have forever shaped the landscape of post-rock. In many ways, Mogwai feels like an incredibly human group, casting light on the painful emotions that greet us daily. With every record, that is there challenge: to describe all things indescribable about the human experience.
Kyle Land is a music writer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org