Mogwai's new EP, My Father My King, is, in a word, artless. It is inscrutable from every angle: melodically dull and repetitive, rhythmically plodding, harmonically stale, sonically crude. There isn't any perceptible interplay or tension between the musicians, and it doesn't rock. So what's left? Mostly, a hackneyed and melodramatic concept piece.
"My Father My King" is a single, 21-minute song that has been an in-concert favorite for some time, according to the EP's online promotional copy. The same copy says that the piece is based on a traditional Jewish song. I'm not familiar with the song, but it seems that the band borrowed isolated fragments from a longer melody, since "My Father My King" has very little to offer in terms of melodic interest.
The piece starts with a single electric guitar and the melodic fragment that we're going to hear every which way but interesting for the next eight minutes. It builds in layers: the first guitar is joined by a second, and the rest of the instruments make their separate entrances, and then distortion pedals are stomped to add to the mass. But the distortion pedal, the universal guitar intensity button, actually thins the sound here. The clean-signal guitars at least have some weight and presence; the distortion here occupies a pretty whiney frequency range. I knew that it was supposed to get intense when I heard that sound kick in, and all it actually does is flood the artifice in uncomfortable light. As the pot is stirred over the first five or so minutes, parts of the band break off into a typical heavy metal chugging rhythm, distortion pedals click into super intensity (to little effect except buzzing annoyance), and the drums get louder, all at increments of a minute or so.
At 5:45 the grating distorted guitars carry the melody for a moment, buzzing around each other like angry electronic bees. It's a nice break from the dull and predictable textures of the previous five minutes, but only lasts a handful of seconds. Perhaps this is why I find it effective. The electronic bees then drop out to reveal the layer of comparatively gentle strumming they had recently obliterated.
At around the eight minute mark, the first melodic fragment is finally abandoned for another one, which is a little meatier. As to the quality of these fragments: I thought they sounded no more dignified than harmonic minor noodlings, and the band's grand treatment of the material seemed at best excessive. The origin of the melody explained, obliquely, the weight of the approach, but it didn't change my reaction to the music. There's just not much happening here.
The same cycle builds again, but more quickly, for the second melodic bit. By 11 minutes we're in doomy metal country. Little whiney guitar figures in unison become the focus here, evoking the ugly grandiosity of Metallica's best moments. As expected, ear-grating white-noise screeches sink the last nail into the hackneyed coffin at 13 minutes and continue without any impact or development until abrupt silence at 21 minutes.
But to my surprise, after many listens, I found myself feeling somewhat ambivalent about My Father My King. I wouldn't say that I was finding myself liking it, but I found it less offensive and annoying than I initially had. I think the appeal is something like a guilty pleasure. There's not much talent or imagination here, but there certainly is ambition. I can imagine this being played by any dramatically inclined and ambitious high-school band excited by the volume and gadgets and thrilled that they can make something together. I think what I appreciate, as a former dramatically inclined and ambitious high-school kid, is that these guys are doing this on a revered indie label to a chorus of accolades. Of course, they're not high-school kids, and my ambivalence is fueled by nostalgia -- certainly not a reliable critical barometer of anything.
Less forgivable than the music itself is Steve Albini's recording, which sounds like a glorified soundboard tape. The guitars sound cheap and lack detail and the drums are miked to generic "big rock" perfection. The bass is nondescript. It is utterly lacking in imagination and depth. The recording does not rock.
If "My Father My King" works live due to some visual or adrenaline component, it doesn't transfer to disc. This is one to pass on.