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.