Scottish post-rock band Mogwai are celebrating 20 very noisy years together with their first all-encompassing best-of titled Central Belts. These guys have released compilations before, but they’ve been of the specialized kind like collected BBC sessions, scattered early recordings, and a consolidation of three EPs. Central Belts nearly goes all in, giving us a (as of this writing) reasonably priced triple album (six discs for vinyl collectors) spanning more than three and a half hours. But when you pull your fine-toothed comb out of your back pocket and begin to look at the collection in earnest, you’ll notice a few things that might move the Mogwai faithful to scratch their heads.
Central Belts‘ first two discs make up the near-chronological rundown of Mogwai’s primary releases. It all starts with two mid-’90s singles, “Summer” and “Helicon 1”, and ends with “Teenage Exorcists”, a track from their 2014 EP Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1. Seems logical, right? The third disc is then reserved for the little oddities that pop up in Mogwai’s catalog like b-sides, outtakes, selections from EPs various soundtrack work, their contribution to a fund-raiser, and the 20-minute monster single that is My Father My King. Why one selection from the 1999 EP like “Burn Girl Prom Queen” is delegated to the third disc while another song from the same release, “Stanley Kubrick”, is placed on the first disc isn’t explained. It’s also not explained why “Wizard Motor” and “Hungry Face”, both from the Les Revenants soundtrack, are on different discs. But that’s all nit-picking compared to the collection’s weirdest move of all, and that is the meager representation of Mogwai’s first full-length album.
Young Team is regarded by most Mogwai fans as, if not their all-out favorite album, then at least a very gutsy debut. Even when some critics (no, not all) were lamenting the perceived sophomore stumble of 1999’s sprawling effort Come On Die Young, the fondness for Young Team grew among fans and press alike. So why does only one song appear from Mogwai’s muscular debut? And why in heaven’s name is it tucked away to the end of the first CD, as if the compilers were trying to hide it? Granted, it’s the song in question is the furious jam known as “Mogwai Fear Satan” which lasts a solid 16 minutes. It could be that, with it’s recent reissue complete with bonus material, the band and/or the compilers just assumed that everyone already has a copy of Young Team and doesn’t need it to be recycled anymore. By the same token, “Hugh Dallas”, a Come On Die Young outtake that surfaced from that album’s 2014 reissue, gets a spot on the rarities disc. Go figure.
Mr. Beast, on the other hand, kicks off the second disc holding four irons in the fire. In fact, when you get right down to it, Central Belters appears to favor latter-day Mogwai overall. While Come On Die Young, Happy Songs for Happy People, and Rock Action are all represented by two songs apiece (and chronologically reversed)The Hawk Is Howling and Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will get to show off three songs apiece in addition to Mr. Beast‘s four. Song length can account for some of this. Just smash together the three songs “Mogwai Fear Satan”, “Christmas Steps”, and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” and you have yourself an album. Move forward in time and you’ll find Mogwai becoming more concise with songs like “The Sun Smells Too Loud” and “Mexican Grand Prix”. By the time they reached Rave Tapes with its infectious, nagging single “Remurdered”, Mogwai were locked in a full embrace with their electronic side. Some fans praised this bold move. Others bemoaned the absence of the band’s noisier guitar jams. Mogwai moved on my releasing an EP of Rave Tapes leftovers and remixes.
But as odd as the selection and ordering thereof may strike some connoisseurs of post-rock, listening to Central Belts from front to back is still a treat. “Summer”, the 1996 single version not be confused with the recording that appears on Young Team, is a perfect little opener. It’s got a cutesy bell melody and an extreme dynamic range designed to startle at any volume. The more subtle single “Helicon 1” points to the even-mellower “Cody”, one of the first times guitarist/leader Stuart Braithwaite committed his own vocals to a recording. Aside from the Barry Burns-sung “Hunted By a Freak”, the first third of Central Belters plays out in the air of quiet tension. Remember, this is band known for sarcastic album titles. Rock Action was neither.
“Auto Rock” brings the second third of the album to life much like “Summer” did for the first: start quiet, fade in, then crank it. From then, the program toggles between the neck-throttlers like “We’re No Here”, “Batcat”, and “Rano Pano” and the comparatively more thoughtful numbers like “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” and “Friend of the Night”. In between are the pleasing if less-than-pulverizing pop experiments of “The Sun Smells Too Loud” and “How To Be A Werewolf”.
The last third is also quite fun to listen to considering that it’s the set’s odd-and-sods assortment. The furnace blast that is “My Father My King” is alone worth the price of admission (and 28% of the disc’s run-time). “Devil Rides” features an off-kilter cameo from 13th Floor Elevators singer Roky Erikson, a maneuver more aligned with that chance to say that you got to record with a rock god than anything that truly fits the song at hand. “Tell Everybody That I Love Them” apparently came from the box set edition of Rave Tapes — man, remember when box sets were just for Clapton and Zeppelin? It seems that everyone has them now. One of the tracks that truly snarls on this disc is “Earth Division” from the quadruple album Occupy This Album (as a side note, the Earth Division EP itself is just one of the many Mogwai EPs to not contribute any songs to Central Belters). Throw in the Hardcore b-side “Hasenheide”, the retooled Rock Action bonus track “D to E”, and film cues “Half Time” and “Hungry Face”, and you’ve got yourself a well-rounded winner to close out the collection.
Considering the number of songs that Mogwai has scattered over various EPs and b-sides, and the fact that some of those songs are rather lengthy, and the fact that they have kept this up for 20 years now, Central Belters does a fine job of showing the uninitiated why Mogwai is such a big deal to some. Sure, it could have included this and it could have done away with that and it would largely be just as good as it was before. The only loose thread is the lack of any in-concert recordings. Judging from fan testimony, Mogwai live is something truly to behold. As we all know, capturing a killer show on tape can be like bottling lightning. Mogwai tried on 2010’s Special Moves/Burning and made out alright, even if nothing from the release made it here. An incentive to boost ticket sales? Nah, they aren’t that shrewd. But Mogwai are, despite pretenses, an ambitious band. The range of their accomplishments is wider than meets the ear and Central Belters makes and rests the case in one fell swoop.