Music

Mogwai: The Hawk Is Howling

Mogwai's sixth marks a return to the spacious dynamics of their early years, even if what they do in that space is different.


Mogwai

The Hawk Is Howling

Label: Wall of Sound
US Release Date: 2008-09-23
UK Release Date: 2008-09-22
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Let's cut to the chase: Mogwai have never made a bad album.

Yes, there are subjective peaks and troughs in a career that has flicked from the minimalist post-rock of Come on Die Young to the understated, hazy electronic experimentation on Happy Songs for Happy People almost as easily as the Scots' debut, Young Team, swept from near silence to eardrum-rupturing noise. Yes, their second album sounds a bit like Slint, and, yes, their later material has failed to (read: opted not to) produce the sort of blistering sonic blitzkriegs that made their name in the first place. But let's be fair: If all of Mogwai's five studio albums thus far had been debuts, the collective critical salivating would have been enough to wash away a sizeable part of the band's native Glasgow.

Such is the way standards are heightened. Make one good album, and people will be disappointed with a mediocre second. Make successive great albums, and fans and critics alike will pick up on the slightest perceived dip in form. And with a band as stylistically changeable as Mogwai, there will always be perceived dips in form. People who loved Young Team might very well have mourned Come on Die Young's lack of devastating crescendos, just as some of those who loved Come on Die Young sniped at the relative bit-part guitars played on Happy Songs.

Unsurprisingly, then, the quintet's most accessible record was possibly their most divisive. Depending on where you stood, 2006's Mr. Beast was either a wishy-washy attempt to please everyone, or a compact summation of the band's career hitherto. It had tender piano in "Auto Rock" and "Friend of the Night", ample noise in the form of "Glasgow Mega-Snake" and "We're No Here", and slow-burning electro-tinted numbers in "Acid Food" and "Team Handed". It even had a chorus(!), albeit just the one.

The Hawk Is Howling is at once both comparable and completely different. Like Mr. Beast, Mogwai's sixth avoids the route of any "triumphant return to form" by either relapsing into any previous winning formula or jumping the shark into a strikingly different style. Instead, it draws on multifarious facets of the band's sound to -- again, like its predecessor -- distil what feels a little like the 'essence' of Mogwai. Perversely, however, that essence here is nothing like Mr. Beast's.

For if their fifth long-player compacted their sound, Mogwai's sixth frees it up entirely, letting it breathe and expand. Whereas Mr. Beast squeezed ten tracks into 40 minutes, with none individually longer than five-and-a-half minutes, Howling manages the same tally in just over an hour, all bar one clocking in past the five-minute mark. And where their last release bred two singles, it's miraculous that our subjects -- with Stuart Braithwaite's deadpan Glaswegain drawl freed of all vocal duties -- have found grounds for even one here, even if the track in question, "Batcat", is more of a calling card than a bid for airplay.

As such, it's a sprawling, spacious record, favouring a considered, consistent flow over express climaxes a la "Killing All the Flies" or "We're No Here". For instance, opener "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" takes nearly seven minutes to make the same journey "Auto Rock", its counterpart on Mr. Beast, made in four. Beginning with pensive piano chord shapes, the ivory is gradually overwhelmed by unrelenting groans of guitar before the band step up to a slow-motion crescendo all the more potent for having crept up by degrees. This sense of free-flowing spaciousness persists beyond the gradual build-ups, however. "Danphe and the Brain", a more muted piece that sees a repeated guitar line float lazily amid intertwining trickles of keyboard, benefits from a similarly generous amount of breathing room, while even the heavier tracks -- "Batcat" and the "The Precipice" the two most consistently strident -- are bereft of the sense of urgency that pervaded over "Glasgow Mega-Snake".

But what on first listen appears to be an album of relative serenity in time unravels its layers to reveal a multi-faceted one, remarkably busy even as it is down-tempo. Sprawling and protracted it may be, but The Hawk Is Howling has so much going on that the time it spends unwinding never feels like wasted time. "The Sun Smells Too Loud" is the prime example. Detached from its album surroundings, first exposure to this pre-release free download sounded like a seven-minute meander ultimately devoid of destination. A couple of spins later, and tucked in at the heart of Howling, it becomes an understated but captivating centrepiece. Seemingly simple but deceptively intricate, the track is pinned together by a straightforward, sliding riff that persists ahead of an ever-changing flux of jagged synth, zesty keyboards, sparkling guitar, and Martin Bulloch's thumping drums. The approach is pure Mogwai, but the execution exudes warmth -- a poppiness, even -- like nothing we've seen them try before.

Yet it's the most familiar tracks on The Hawk Is Howling, and the routes they opt not to take, that say most about Mogwai's progression. The cascading sheets of diaphanous guitar that form the undercurrent of "Thank You Space Expert" are instantly recognisable, but the very fact that they are an undercurrent to twinkling, crystalline keys rather than the beginnings of a gradual upsurge of noise shows a graceful exercise in restraint. Likewise, the crescendo forever hinted-at in "Scotland's Shame" is deemed entirely unnecessary by the raw, searing intensity of its aching guitars, halted just a step back from the edge and content to stay there.

The problem with the calculated, technically adept approach our subjects adopt is that while The Hawk Is Howling is a consistently beguiling record, all wrapped up in intricate, multi-instrument polyrhythms, it is low on the euphoric highs we know they're capable of. It's low on the lows, too, -- there are no duds, nor any filler, whatsoever here -- but Howling needs another bona fide gem or two to elevate it to career-high status.

Which returns us to the unfortunate, maybe unfair, but ultimately unavoidable concern with which we started: heightened standards. Simply put, The Hawk Is Howling would probably score higher, on that nifty little scale down to which you probably long ago scrolled, if Mogwai were debutants. If they were, we'd all reel agog at what a mature and complex package had landed ready-formed upon our laps. But of course, Howling wouldn't exist if Mogwai were debutants; the album is the sound of a band who have shifted through many forms in the past and have, to a degree, now settled on something of a staple, though many-sided, sound. That they've raised their own bar in the process is for them both a blessing and a curse, but the former far more than the latter. Because to quantify Howling's quality serves no real purpose. It is a sensationalist's nightmare: An understated, calculated, subtle, slow-burning record that will win its makers few new admirers, but please the majority of their existing fanbase. It is neither a great leap forward, nor the slightest step back, but a preening and consolidating of the sound they've honed over the last twelve or so years.

Mogwai could very well go their entire career without quite making that perfect album, but when everything they put out is this intricate, idiosyncratic, and immersive, it's splitting hairs to even care.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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