Photo: Publicity from gig poster (2008)

15 Years of Mogwai’s ‘The Hawk Is Howling’

The Hawk Is Howling is full of signature moments when Mogwai explore complex combinations of moods from bright to dark, soft to heavy, and sensual to horrific.

The Hawk Is Howling
Wall of Sound / Play It Again Sam / Matador
22 September 2008

For a band named after the cute, pre-transformation form of the knee-high monsters from 1984’s horror/comedy Gremlins, Mogwai have become icons of solemn, lugubrious, slow-building instrumental rock music since the release of their 1997 debut LP, Mogwai Young Team. Even before their debut, the Scottish band founded Rock Action Records, their independent record label, in 1996 as a means for an unknown band from Glasgow to spread their music.

Since then, Mogwai have exhibited nothing less than sturdy integrity, writing and releasing an entire album’s worth of material every two to three years, along with a catalog of EPs and film and television scores. Following 2006’s highly regarded Mr Beast and preceded by the Batcat EP earlier in the same month, 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling, Mogwai’s sixth album, sees the group exercising their brilliant knack for creating dynamic, drawn-out, guitar-driven rhapsodies without interest in increasing their public image as an austere art-rock outfit, but rather to fulfill their needs as career musicians that create organic and meditative compositions.

Consisting of drummer Martin Bulloch, guitarist John Cummings, bassist Dominic Aitchison, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, and multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns, Mogwai are undoubtedly stalwarts of post-rock, a label that most bands who fit the genre find alienating and inaccurate as if they’ve exceeded rock music into a level of superiority. Their perception of themselves is much simpler. They play rock music. Post-rock may be a pompous, highfalutin label. Still, there is a sonic layout that characterizes the genre, and with most, if not all, post-rock bands, patience is not only a virtue but a necessity and standard.

Patience is Mogwai’s modus operandi, and on The Hawk Is Howling, they exercise more patience than ever before. Opener “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” exemplifies this unwavering placidity, as the song saunters towards you with slow piano chords. As it builds upon itself through its nearly seven-minute runtime, it pays off with a satisfyingly climactic ending. For the third LP in a row, The Hawk Is Howling again exhibits Mogwai’s skill at choosing an alluring album opener.

Without being particularly technical, Mogwai’s music has a lot in common with classical music in terms of sonic complexity and sophistication. Still, despite their symphonic style, they incorporate more traditional rock and song structure elements, especially on The Hawk Is Howling. These songs have distinct beginnings and endings, each standing apart from the other rather than sounding like movements within a larger whole. “Danphe and the Brain” and “Local Authority” are structured in verse-chorus form.

“The Sun Smells Too Loud” may be Mogwai’s most easily accessible song to non-fans of the ensemble or post-rock in general, rolling on a steady mid-tempo rock beat and boasting an upbeat nature. The onset of this song is almost unpredictable, following the previous two down-tempo tracks and surprising within the album as a whole. Yet, it breaks up the darkly-tinted mood, adding vivid color with brighter pacing and texture like light piercing through cloud cover.

Considering that Mogwai are known for making instrumental music, The Hawk Is Howling is, ironically, their first LP of purely instrumental songs, unlike their previous records, which all featured vocal melodies or spoken word parts, albeit their vocal tracks are often distorted (as an occasional vocalist, Burns uses a vocoder) and mixed so as not to overbear or feature prominently over the instrumentation. Mogwai treat vocal tracks as another instrument to stand and balance with the rest. The only reason they sing on tracks is if they sense that the song is missing something and they feel that all of the songs they wrote for The Hawk Is Howling were complete. Mogwai didn’t plan to make an exclusively instrumental album, showing their strong intuition regarding their organic writing process, not to mention that their music holds a more significant universality without esoteric lyrical content.

Due to Mogwai’s honed intuition, The Hawk Is Howling is so deliberately balanced that it almost opposes self-indulgence by example. Oppressive layers don’t overcomplicate it. It doesn’t sound sloppy or haphazardly stitched together. Yet, it also isn’t overproduced or overcorrected by digital editing. It sounds principled and inherently natural. Ostensibly, writing music like this takes a lot of painstaking mental processing and arrangement. Still, Mogwai don’t drive themselves crazy over songwriting and recording. It certainly doesn’t come without a sense of fun.

Despite Mogwai’s disciplined style, they’ve made it clear from the beginning that they have a peculiar collective sense of humor that subtly rubs off on their music. They don’t seem concerned with being perceived as austere, as seen in their tongue-in-cheek song titles and confounding album names (the album art for The Hawk Is Howling is a headshot of an eagle). Fans try to find deeper meanings to their song titles, but Mogwai have admitted that it’s mostly nonsense. They write the song first, then get lost in finding an appropriate name, so they use utterances from friends that made them laugh, perhaps something they misheard, or even a news headline that sounded interesting.

Such is the case for song titles like “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” and “Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Police and Loses His Slut Girlfriend” (from the Batcat EP), both comments made by friends that probably made sense in conversation, but rendered senseless as isolated remarks. Mogwai’s sense of humor is endearing, especially from a band with such a dramatic sound. However, because of their meaningless titles, the only meaning listeners can glean is from their sound dynamics. Additionally, Mogwai are lackadaisical about inspiring emotions in their listeners. As a listener, if you feel something, it’s driven by your pursuit of meaning. Ultimately, it’s the listener’s responsibility to extract emotions from Mogwai’s music.

That said, there’s no doubt that tracks like “Thank You Space Expert” give off a drifting tone, considering its resonant descending guitar notes and expansive, slow pace. The song doesn’t crescendo and has no build-up in terms of volume. Still, the tone changes from anxiety to relief, from toiling search to awe-inspiring discovery of beauty and comfort, and ends with a twinkle of wonder. It exudes clarity and relief, the antithesis of the effect of pop music’s ability to make people hyper and want to dance. The Hawk Is Howling is some of the most deeply meditative contemporary music. It’s brooding, spiritually and psychologically elevating, and has the same calming effect as classical music. Listeners can get so engrossed that it’s as if their consciousness has been temporarily usurped by the song, leaving them slightly slack-jawed and nodding with tilted heads.

Yet even with a few upbeat or relieving tracks, The Hawk Is Howling is atmospherically bleaker compared to their last two albums, 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr Beast. It even exceeds the dreary soundscapes of 1999’s Come on Die Young. Most of the record ambles like enormous beasts across desolate meadows, such as the trodding tempos of “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” and “Scotland’s Shame”. “Kings Meadow” is a slow-paced, serene piece of slumber music, devoid of drums and led by a pretty interplay of keyboards, guitar, and soft bass work, with glassy chimes twinkling in the back, almost like icicles crashing to the ground. “Danphe and the Brain” possesses weary tones conveyed through Aitshison’s rattling upward slide of his bass coupled with a moaning chorus riff. “Local Authority” yawns wantonly through its alternating verse and chorus progressions as if sinking into a dream state.

At times, Mogwai present themselves as unabashedly metallic as they have occasionally on previous releases, making good use of heavy music’s enveloping, mesmerizing effect. Excitement rolls in with “Batcat”, The Hawk Is Howling‘s sludgy, terrifying second track and sole single. The music video has a folk horror aesthetic depicting a girl in the woods pursued by cult-like figures who follow her into a cave where they find a hideous bat cat creature. “The Precipice” is nearly a doom metal arrangement, stylistically similar to Chicago’s Pelican, a band that is arguably Mogwai’s post-rock/metal peers. Tension rises in the last two minutes of “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” until it reaches a mountainous, metallic crown of crashing cymbals and a wailing guitar solo.

The Hawk Is Howling is a prime example of music that sounds and invokes spirituality and even sensuality without intentionally being made that way. Having been brought up in an interview with Mogwai during the recording of Mr Beast, the members react prudishly to the fact that people play their music while having sex. However, there is something to be said about their music inspiring sexual feelings.

Mogwai’s music isn’t intentionally erotic, but that’s not to say there isn’t a sensual element to their music. Delicate tones pervade much of The Hawk Is Howling. Bulloch’s drumming is often soft and docile. “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” feels like a gradual yet constant crescendo throughout its seven-and-a-half-minute run, and like “Thank You Space Expert”, much of it is a gentle jam with all the instruments mingling in a finely balanced way that perhaps may inspire romance or primal urges in sensitive listeners.

Ultimately, The Hawk Is Howling is full of signature moments when Mogwai explore complex combinations of moods ranging from bright to dark, soft to heavy, and sensual to horrific, leaving listeners engulfed in the intricate, knotty emotions of being a living thing in a simultaneously complicated and simple world.