Last time we had heard from Mogwai, they had released a solid record with 2011’s most badass album title Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Hardcore Will Never Die had the Glasgow quartet bringing more electronic hardware into their sound and Rave Tapes is the next step in Mogwai’s evolution. Instead of post-rock augmented by synths, Rave Tapes sounds like Air’s Talkie Walkie mixed with Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.
There’s a surprising amount of restraint of Rave Tapes, so if you’re looking for bombastic Sigur Rós style interludes you’ll be severely disappointed. That’s not to say Rave Tapes isn’t filled with beautiful moments. Opener “Heard About You Last Night” is the album’s best track, a graceful and moving piece built around gorgeous chimes and flawless guitar work. The track never explodes into heaviness but instead blossoms during the chorus into stunning vibrancy with soaring keyboards leading well curated guitar feedback.
“Heard About You Last Night” is easily the album’s softest track and Rave Tapes can become impressively heavy. “MasterCard” is the most straightforward rocker here and the album’s shortest song “Hexon Bogon” has some absolutely brilliant guitar work that’s liable to completely sweep the listener away. But guitars aren’t the only instruments that can become massive. Creeping synths and keyboards make up the base for “Simon Ferocious” (along with Martin Bulloch’s fantastic drumming). “Remurdered” is the best example of how well Mogwai can use synths. The first half sounds like the build up to a particularly epic boss fight, complete with pulsating guitars and 8-bit drums. But the second half is where the song really comes into its own. A dark and snaking keyboard rises forth and overtakes the song and the rest of the band follows along in grand style, amplifying the sound to 11.
The only two tracks that hold the album down contain vocalists. Unlike Jonsi’s angelic coo or the apocalyptic voiceovers of Godspeed, Mogwai instead focused on more traditional vocal lines. Despite the meditational feel of the backing track, the vocals on “Blues Hour” are so airy and inconsequential that they add nothing to the song. The only truly frustrating track on Rave Tapes is “Replenish” which, instrumentally, is one of the finest pieces on the album. Instead of just letting the track play out, a monologue is sloppily placed on top. The soliloquy that ruins the song is a musing over Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the supposed satanic backwards message encoded within. The speaker simply goes on about Satan and how choices have to be made. It comes off as pointless and a bit pretentious, but the truly infuriating thing is how fantastic the background is. It’s a slow burner that radiates a menacing tone and instrumental version would have been one of the best tracks on the album. Thankfully the vocoder laden finale of “The Lord is Out of Control” avoids these problems, as the synthetic voice that hovers around the track only adds to the song’s powerful sway.
There are sure to be detractors attacking Mogwai for moving away from their roots. But considering their work in film scoring and the sound on Hardcore Will Never Die, Rave Tapes seems to be a natural progression in their changing sound. Though not perfect, Rave Tapes shows a band comfortable in the expansion of their sound.