Mogwai ate me alive.
Nirvana mercilessly kicked my ass once back in grade school, but other than that my relationships with my favorite bands had always been nothing if not amiable. And certainly never prone to ending in physical altercations. Mogwai, though, ate me alive. And regularly, too. I wasn’t an occasional, frivolous snack such as a peach cobbler, or those Hostess cake rolls that reportedly will survive nuclear holocaust. No, it seemed every time we were in the same room, it wasn’t 15 minutes before I was in Mogwai’s damned stomach again, Jonah-style. It was befuddling. Many an evening at home I found myself situated uncomfortably in the belly of the Mog, scratching my head thinking “Damn, not this again.”
Ever since falling in love with Scotland’s sweethearts via 1999’s EP + 2, I continue to come back to them, purchase their new albums, and see them in concert, despite the fact that I know exactly how it’s going to end every time. Over the years I’ve learned there is no other way to experience Mogwai. One simply must dwell inside it, volunteer oneself to carry its weight, allow oneself to be wrapped up in it. Mogwai is meaningless as background music, ineffective if played at a low volume, and generally best if working as the soundtrack to solitude.
Mr. Beast is no different. The title itself is a little misleading, but then again, Mogwai has something of a history of titular irony; 2001’s Rock Action rocked about as hard as Al Jolson and had precisely as much action as a Trekkie on prom night, and if 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People was indeed that, then I’m booking a flight to Glasgow, where I’ll proceed to make a living from selling black market Prozac to whatever population fosters the terminally depressed people that burden this music with such adjectives. Mr. Beast, likewise, is not a colossus; it is, in fact, one of the “smallest” records that Mogwai have ever made. Its songs are not epic, its finales are not grand, and its formulas do not deviate. It is, to be completely honest, a predictable album from beginning to end. But then, perhaps the title refers not to the enormity of its individual components, but to the unchanging nature of Mogwai as a whole: unrepentantly, they will still eat you alive. And, if one must be eaten alive by something, is it not best to at least feel at home in its belly?
I know, metaphorical nonsense. But the point is this: Mogwai knows what works for them, and they continue to do it. While each of their albums presents them in a slightly different light (Mr. Beast sees the implementation of a very authentic lap steel guitar in “Acid Food”), very seldom do they stray from the rock on which they established their reputation. As a result, it’s been a long time since a Mogwai record has been truly shocking, but it’s a pretty decent trade-off when you consider the fact that, really, the worst thing you can call any of their records is “pleasant.” And bearing that in mind, a different Mogwai would not really be a Mogwai at all; as much as I’m a proponent of change, I don’t want to hear Mogwai’s adventures into other musical realms. I simply wouldn’t care, because what they do so well scratches an itch at which no other band in the world can even flick. So the bottom line on Mr. Beast is that, while it’s as good of an introduction as any for a newcomer into the world of the Mog, it’s a record whose verdict will ultimately come to fans based simply on whether or not they like the compositions.
And they are fantastic. At this point, Mogwai have learned enough from their mistakes and built enough on their strengths that Mr. Beast could be considered by all means a flawless record. Each song is well-crafted, the arrangements dynamic and organic in flow, and as usual the instrumentalists treat each note as though it’s the only one they’ll ever play. The intro to “Emergency Trap” takes Tenacious D’s “One-Note Song” and turns it into a hazy, brooding anthem of lethargy. The main piano riff to “Friend of the Night” could have been sampled from Bill Evans’s You Must Believe in Spring, in terms of both tact and emotional lyricism. The guitar that feeds back throughout “Folk Death 95” is the most musical feedback I can recall ever having heard, sounding more like an echoing cry from the other instruments than the electrical misfirings of an amplifier. And “Glasgow Mega-Snake”, quite simply, will assault you with a barrage of noise and then devour you.
Where vocals are present, they are just as they are on other Mogwai compositions with vocals: the lyrics are one-hundred percent inconsequential, the voice merely serving as another instrument atop the already thick blanket of sound. The vocals are used to the greatest effect on “I Chose Horses”, which, spoken over the beautifully layered ambient guitar and piano, work in much the same way they did on The Clientele’s “Losing Haringey”, from last year’s Strange Geometry, though the words themselves matter far less here. The music by itself is melancholy; the music behind a subtle whisper is enough to split one’s soul in two.
As much as I’d love to balance out this review with some constructive criticism, Mogwai largely remain a take ’em or leave ’em affair in which what their detractors would call flaws are the things their fans find most appealing. To break down the sound into pieces is futile for a band whose whole is at least twice the sum of its parts. So perhaps their biggest fault is that they’re an all-or-nothing endeavor, but if it is, I’d be fishing to regard it as a significant one. Mr. Beast is as solid a record as the Scottish gentry have made; if you’ve had your mind blown by Mogwai once, this record probably won’t do it again, but as it stands, it’s a perfectly acceptable beast by which to be eaten alive.