(Happy Songs for Happy People, 2003)
As I said, Mogwai like to take the piss with their titles sometimes, but if this album wasn’t happy, it was certainly more friendly than a lot of their previous work. It hadn’t lost any of their aggression (and if I wanted to focus on that we’d be talking about “Ratts of the Capital”) but generally the whole thing felt a lot lighter and brighter than their past work, even if that brightness was more akin to Klieg lights than soft sunshine. Mogwai’s songs had been pretty before, sure, but not in the dense, glowing way “Kids Will Be Skeletons” was pretty. Barry Burns’ keyboards and vocoder feel not just integrated but essential to the band’s sound on Happy Songs for Happy People and the result was ingratiating enough (even when, as on “Stop Coming to My House”, it felt a bit like an iceberg collapsing on your head) that the band picked up a much wider audience.
(Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003, 2005)
The great John Peel was an early and enthusiastic Mogwai fan, and after his death the band decided to collect all of their Peel-era BBC sessions and dedicate it to him. There is fine material throughout, but the track that best sums up the band’s live ferocity is the nearly double-length detonation of Young Team massive “Like Herod”. There’s some calm near the beginning, but much of this version’s 18-and-a-half minutes either focuses on that muscular, sawing riff at the center of the song or devolves into chaotic noise. As varied as Mogwai can be on record, live they are one of the greatest noise-rock (as distinct from noise) bands you can see, and this “Like Herod” is a great example of that side of them.
(Mr Beast, 2006)
Mr Beast was Mogwai’s third consecutive sub-45-minute album and in some ways it felt like a back-to-basics one. The sound was harsher than Happy Songs for Happy People and the structures slightly more conventional than Rock Action. The stirring, piano-led single “Friend of the Night” suggested that maybe this Mogwai album would be downright decorous. And there are certainly some tracks that compellingly restrained (in a tense way, not an out-of-gas one) but the album also featured songs like “Glasgow Mega-Snake”, a crisp, compact rager that might have been the closest the band had gotten to full-on heavy metal. Mogwai hadn’t cut loose and gone for it this directly since maybe “Summer” on Young Team and even that song had more quiet/loud dynamics than “Glasgow Mega-Snake”. A surprising amount of Mogwai’s strength comes from the way they don’t go immediately for the jugular a lot of the time, but as this song shows, they can be unnervingly effective when doing just that.
(The Hawk Is Howling, 2008)
I confess to being at a bit of a loss when it comes to The Hawk Is Howling; it’s easily my least-favourite Mogwai album, but it’s also one that (as far as I can tell) garnered them lots of new fans and is much beloved by plenty of people. Even more vexing, there’s nothing I can put my finger on that leads me to dislike it. I may in fact be falling prey to the same thing early fans did with Come on Die Young; it’s their longest and most deliberately paced album in years. I’ve slowly come around to it a bit since 2008; it’s not as if it sounds bad, I just rarely feel the urge to play it. “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” made a lot more sense to me once I heard the band play it live, as the opening song to their set. Cranking the noise and the tension up more and more until the whole thing cracks open with a surprising little piano figure floating above the glowering bad vibes of the rest of the track, it makes for a fantastic overture. Even if the song weren’t great (and it is, although I’m still reserving judgment on much of the album), it lead to one of the all-time great band t-shirts, which counts for something.
(Special Moves, 2010)
Like many great live bands, it’s hard for Mogwai to capture what’s transcendent about them on a live recording. Special Moves comes gratifyingly close, especially on vinyl (the excellent, impressionistic live documentary Burning that comes with it is fantastic too), although to really get the effect you’d need to play it at neighbour-disturbing volumes. Live, the band shaves a couple of minutes off of Rock Action‘s “You Don’t Know Jesus”, giving us a shredding, shredded version that holds together structurally (barely) even when layers of distortion threaten to rip it apart.
(Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, 2011)
Hardcore Will Never Die… isn’t a return to form, or a victory lap, or anything semi-disparaging like that. It’s merely a group somehow making the end-to-end strongest record of their career over a decade into it, when plenty of acts have subsided into diminishing returns. The first time I was played it, I was both stunned by its immediately apparent quality and the way it seemed to integrate and reconcile all of the band’s past work; you can hear bits of all the different sides of Mogwai throughout, without it ever sounded like they’re resting on their laurels or succumbing to nostalgia. In a parallel world it could have been their greatest hits; in this one, it’s just a career-best album, and the one I ultimately had the most trouble picking a song from (although the exultant, distorted riffs of “Rano Pano” are no less glorious than the other candidates).
(Rave Tapes, 2014)
Pretty much any album would have a hard time following up Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will and as befits a band who doesn’t really seem to look back, they don’t really try. Rave Tapes is as confident and cohesive an album as any Mogwai’s made, mining subtler but no less strong pleasures than its predecessor. Much of “Simon Ferocious” twines around the fuzzy analog synth melody at its center, but the rest of the group leans into the melody with enough heft that the song gains a surprisingly powerful sense of weight and even swing in places. It’s doubtful anyone listening to Young Team in 1997 could have predicted “Simon Ferocious” or the rest of Rave Tapes, but as always it sounds like nobody but Mogwai.