[22 January 2014]
Back in the ‘90s some writers started calling a fairly unrelated clutch of bands “post-rock”, a genre name no more or less sensible or grandiose than most of them. While the term was originally intended to refer to any act that was somehow advancing past the boundaries of rock music without, err, becoming some other genre, it quickly calcified into pretty much referring to guitar-based bands that specialized in long, instrumental songs that often built to huge crescendos. Like many minor genres, it described plenty of wonderful music but was as notable for how the notable acts in the field refused to just play, well, post-rock.
I’m not sure if people tend to call Mogwai post-rock that much anymore, but I do remember when you practically couldn’t get through a paragraph on them without encountering the name. While their music has always remained recognizably Mogwai, they’ve explored so many avenues over the years since their first full-length releases in 1997 that it’s hard to call them anything more specific than simply a rock band, and one of the finest and most adventurous rock bands working in 2014. It’s a little too hard to assess the ‘best’ Mogwai songs - depending on what aspect of the band you like best you could amass a credible top 10 or 20 from just a small slice of their career—so with their very fine new album Rave Tapes out this month, PopMatters looks back on their rich career by picking 13 of their finest songs from the full span of their work. Excepting Mogwai’s soundtracks, which are great in their own right but also generally focused more on the overall mood than specific songs, the following list picks a song apiece from each of their full-length releases from 1997 to 2014, plus one special addition.
These days the Ten Rapid compilation is a little overlooked in Mogwai’s discography, but there’s a reason this song, originally from the band’s New Paths to Helicon 7”, has been preserved on the group’s live albums. Most of this early singles compilation is made up of enjoyably scrappy little bursts of noise, but “Helicon 1” (named after the mountain where two springs sacred to the Muses are) is utterly majestic. With a structure like its namesake, “Helicon 1” ascends to a peak and then falls away afterwards, and, as gorgeous as the intro and outro are, that peak by itself offers ample evidence for the idea that, as someone would say on their first album proper, “Music is bigger than words and wider than pictures.”
I am trying to balance this list between canonical and personal favourites while still giving a overall introduction to Mogwai, and I will admit part of me wanted to pick any number of songs off of Young Team instead of this 16-minute behemoth, not because it’s not amazing (it is) or because it’s not beloved (check) and still performed regularly by the band (ditto). It’s just such an obvious pick that it might actually be the boring one for fans of the group. The recording sessions from the band’s debut were fraught enough that there was a fear it would be their finale as well. Pseudonyms were adopted, tattoos inscribed, and afterwards Brendon O’Hare would depart to be replaced with Barry Burns. So the title of “Mogwai Fear Satan” is slightly less figurative than you might think (although this is also a band that loves to take the piss, especially with song titles; bassist Dominic Aitchison’s childhood nightmares about the devil comes into play here too). Especially at the time most of the talk about Mogwai centred around the sheets of guitar noise and the explosive power of the band, but it’s worth noting just how much mileage “Mogwai Fear Satan” gets out of the rhythmic heart drummer Martin Bulloch gives the track, as well as the way additional musician Shona Brown’s flute gives the song’s long, dying passages after its explosions a lovely, mournful air.
I remember Come on Die Young, which might still be my favourite Mogwai album, getting nailed a bit at the time for being too much. Too long, too loud, too cold, too slow, too unfriendly, basically. Part of this, I think, is that it’s sequenced a bit oddly (though I think effectively), frontloading its most glacial material and building to three nine-minute-plus epics in a row by the end of the album. It also features one of the relatively few Mogwai songs with conventionally sung vocals from the band (specifically guitarist Stuart Braithwaite), the desolate, lovely “Cody” (although given that the album’s title derives from Glasgow gang graffiti, there’s an even darker interpretation possible of lines like “And would you stomp me, if I tried to stomp you?”). As with the rest of Come on Die Young “Cody” is content to take its time making its point, but there’s a stark beauty to it unlike anything Mogwai had done before, as well as proof that Mogwai mostly sticks to instrumentals by choice, not because they can’t make vocals work.
“Hugh Dallas” is, to me, the great lost Mogwai song and I hope it gets included on some sort of deluxe or archival release instead of languishing away on a fine but mostly overlooked three-disc label sampler from the end of last century. It’s another song with vocals, and even a bit of a concept to it. Hugh Dallas is an acclaimed Scottish football referee (soccer to North Americans), and the track depicts his mindset just after the worst error of his career, a penalty kick he gave to Spain in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers that they should not have gotten that gave them a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic (and thus preventing the latter from making the World Cup, still the actual biggest sporting event in the world). Even during its hushed beginnings “Hugh Dallas” is wracked with self-doubt, but as things approach one of the greatest peaks of Mogwai’s career it’s clear that the band aren’t mocking or criticizing Dallas so much as suffering right beside him, until “Is the light so bad, were we so bad today?” takes on a heavy existential weight by the end.
I said I was covering full-lengths, and this isn’t cheating; EP+6 is a compilation collecting the 4 Satin, No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew), and, uh, EP EPs and at just over 72 minutes is as full-length as anything the band is likely to put out. Except for an alternate, even more savage take on Come on Die Young‘s “Christmas Steps” (“Xmas Steps”) the material on these EPs is all new and easily stands with the band’s best work. “Burn Girl Prom Queen” is maybe Mogwai’s most mournful song, partly thanks to the slow-burning work of the Cowdenbeath Brass Band. But whereas the song could have easily built to the kind of climax Mogwai seemed to specialize in at the time, both the horns and the band settle into something restrained and lovely instead; a memorial instead of a Carrie-style massacre, maybe.
After the bit of a kicking that Come on Die Young got in the press, you might think that Rock Action was a bit reactionary, but if the breadth of Mogwai’s music since is any indication it would have happened anyway. The band’s briefest release since Ten Rapid, it’s got short interludes, noise, a song in Welsh, an alien abduction narrative, and very little of what a lot of people were expecting from this band. “Sine Wave” manages to be almost completely unlike most previous Mogwai songs in composition (including its introduction of Barry Burns’ watery, vocodered pseudovocals) while still sounding like nobody else but this band. The gnashing layers of static and the mechanistic rhythms point towards a lot of the band’s future work, but it’s also, for those of a certain bent, one of Mogwai’s most beautiful songs. Even (or maybe especially) when the rest of the track recedes a bit for a repeated feedback squeal.
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.
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 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.
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.
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… 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).
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.