[15 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. How can the music on any album possibly live up to a title like that? Nevermind that it sounds both hilarious and bad-ass, it also can’t help but remind you of Mogwai’s best album, 1999’s Come on Die Young. The insistent, dangerous edge of that record’s title is replaced here with a wearier outlook, a more bleak awareness of mortality. Right away, the title both suggests and displays the tension of both aging gracefully and holding onto your aesthetic.
The music on the album, thankfully, isn’t bogged down by all that weary mortal weight. In fact, if anything it is sleek, even streamlined in spots. Following the workman-like and monolithic feel of 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling—and, to some extent, 2006’s Mr. Beast—Mogwai sound rejuvenated on the new record. They continue to hone their sound into something less expansive but thicker, more punishing in its rock elements, and the results are energetic and often impressive, if not surprising.
Opener “White Noise” is the kind of slow-build rocker we’ve come to expect, heck it’s basically trademark Mogwai at this point. The echoing guitar notes ring out over spacious drums, noises rise and fall in the song’s atmosphere, and eventually it swells to rupture—organs amp up and fill holes, guitar notes continue to swell until each sounds like a six-string chord, and the cymbals crash and ripple behind it all. If it sounds rote, that’s because the formula kind of is. But in this case, “White Noise” is a vibrant example of a band doing what they do best, and doing it awfully well. Unlike The Hawk Is Howling‘s opener, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead”, the tension holds throughout the whole song, so even when we know what’s coming, we’re happy to wait for it.
“Rano Pano”, on the other hand, dives right into the racket and fuzz of guitars. Everything is cranked to 11 from jump, so the song soars not by getting bigger, but by getting murkier, as organs and guitars get saturated in overdrive and smudge together into a huge, wonderful sound. In other places, the band slows down to more subtle textures without losing their edge. The key-heavy “Death Rays” is the best example, sounding like the long shadow cast by the thick rock of “Rano Pano”.
Elsewhere on the record, though, it’s hard to see what Mogwai is going for. “San Pedro”, for all its lean rocking power, lacks the rich layering that make other songs work. It’s got an immediate kick, sure, but it resonates less than, say, “White Noise”. “Letters to the Metro” tries for the same moody downshift as “Death Rays”, but sounds more sleepy than dreamy. “Mexican Grand Prix” stands as the biggest left-turn on the record, employing an electro-krautrock feel in the midst of all these heavy rock songs. In execution, unfortunately, it feels too under control. The effects-heavy vocals play as more of a distraction than anything, and other than serving as a quick tone shift early in the record, it’s relatively forgettable.
Make no mistake, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is better than the band’s two previous records. It’s got an intangible vitality to it, a fire under its ass that gives these songs some jolt. That doesn’t mean, however, that it eliminates wholly the troubles they ran into on those albums. Back when they made Come on Die Young, the band had an exploratory sound. Songs frayed along the edges; they didn’t wrap themselves up neatly. You could hear the band wandering out into the sonic layers they made, looking for the next one, or the right hole to tear in the ones they had. They’re not workman-like here, but there is something professional, maybe refined, about their sound now. They aren’t working out new muscles so much as they’re toning and flexing the ones they have. That doesn’t make these songs bad, or even boilerplate. Mogwai is good enough at what they do to keep it fresh enough, but when they’re not exploring as much on record, we get less to listen for in the bargain.
Still, closer “You’re Lionel Richie”—hilarious title and all—reminds us why we love Mogwai. It stretches out to eight-and-a-half minutes and catches us off-guard with its quiet build, if only because it bottoms out into a negative space the rest of the record never uses. From there, we get the grimiest, darkest chunk of rumbling sound the band offers here. It drags itself, trudging and growling, for as long as it can before it fades out in bleary squalls. It’s the Mogwai that you’ve almost heard on the rest of the record, the one you were waiting for. It’s clear their hard core—that post-rock aesthetic—has not died, but if they don’t channel it like this a little more in the future, then they’re right about one thing: That post-rock sound will surely outlast them.