Noises Sound Like the End: 13 Essential Mogwai Songs

With the very fine new album Rave Tapes out this month, PopMatters looks back on Mogwai's rich career by picking 13 of the finest songs from the full span of the post-rock band's work.

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.

1. "Helicon 1"
(Ten Rapid (Collected Recordings 1996-1997), 1997)

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."

2. "Mogwai Fear Satan"
(Young Team, 1997)

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.

3. "Cody"
(Come on Die Young, 1999)

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.

4. "Hugh Dallas"
(Everything Is Nice: The Matador Records 10th Anniversary Anthology, 1999)

"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.

5. "Burn Girl Prom Queen"
(EP+6, 2000)

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.

6. "Sine Wave"
(Rock Action, 2001)

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.

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