Half Life – Mogwai

Scottish post-rock denizens Mogwai are a band who thrive in chaos and unpredictability – much like the little furry creatures from Joe Dante’s Gremlins they’re named after.  Boundary-pushers since their inception, their feats of trailblazing subsequently launched post-rock into the mainstream stratosphere without ever having to compromise their artistic vision.  Mogwai’s success is well earned and proof that, sometimes, crafting consistently great and innovative music can get you far.

To traverse their discography is to explore vast oceans and limitless skies of both welcome familiarity and unexpected delights.  Whether unleashing earth-shattering audio assaults or elegiac passages of soothing soundscapes, their music is profoundly human and capable of eliciting an emotional response through instrumentals alone.

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If you aren’t familiar with the colloquial slang of central Scotland, then the term “young team” probably won’t mean anything to you.  Basically, it’s a term used in the band’s hometown of Glasgow to describe a gang of miscreants and thugs, usually associated with territories.  Usually with a humorous wink, Mogwai have stayed true to their cultural roots the entirety of their career (which is exemplified perfectly on track “R U Still In 2 It,’’ featuring Aidan Moffat of the sensational native indie icons Arab Strap).

That said, the band have always embraced influences from far and wide, and it’s no surprise that Young Team is universally regarded as a pivotal post-rock album. Despite the band not being fans of being labelled “post-rock,” Mogwai’s debut studio album is the quintessential album of the genre, and perhaps even more influential to it than the works of forefathers Slint, Cul De Sac and Tortoise.

But Mogwai owe just as much of a debt to bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth as they do the progenitors of the musical movement they would come to define.  Oscillating between tranquil soundscapes and sudden bursts of grungy metallic assault, Young Team is a record that soothes, sweeps, sprawls, soars and pummels its way to absolute triumph – and it’s absolutely “epic” in the truest sense of the word.

The record is a flawless masterwork throughout, but it’s the tracks with the added punch of big riffs and heavy distortion which stand out the most. “Like Herod’’ is pure brain-hemorrhaging noise rock at is finest; reminiscent of Slint, but with more crunch. However, the album’s apex is reached with 16-minute closer “Mogwai Fear Satan,’’ a song which makes one almighty racket yet boasts a repetitive chord progression throughout that’s so infectious and beautiful it somehow remains serene amidst the violent, schizophrenic cacophony of noise happening around it.

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Come on Die Young is a natural progression from Young Team, but it’s a much more sombre affair compared to its predecessor.  Once again, the album title is a reference to Glasgow gang culture, but as a collection of songs, there is not a hint of violence to be found.  Gone are the forays into metallic fury in favour of a restrained, elegant and meditative piece of work – imbued with a deep sense of sadness throughout.  It’s far from a complete departure from the sound they were synonymous with, but it did serve as a showcase of the unpredictability that’s typified their career.

While their music is renowned for being mostly instrumental, Mogwai have never been shy about making statements; artistically or otherwise, they’ve always been outspoken.  Their interviews are known for their brutal honesty and criticisms of other bands and the industry itself, but at the end of the day it’s their music that’s always done the talking for them when it truly mattered. Come on Die Young, despite not being very noisy, is an album which screams of refusal to adhere to expectations, and it was instrumental to their continued globetrotting ascension.

Opener “Punk Rock:’’ samples a speech made by Iggy Pop during an interview with Peter Gzowski on CBC in 1977.  “CODY’’ is one of the most powerful tracks in their canon, and features the rare singing talents of lead guitarist/sometimes vocalist Stuart Braithwaite.  Interestingly, both songs were covered by post-black metal band – and Heavy Blog favourites – Deafheaven on their split EP with Boss-de-Nage.  If anything, that’s a prime example of just how far-reaching Mogwai’s influence extends across a wide array of musical genres.

Come on Die Young is an emotionally textured exercise in the post-rock terrains the band have always refused to fully associate themselves with – almost as if they were satirising their media genre label while, at the same time, basking in its cathartic elements.  The Iggy Pop interview which opens the album alludes to a style of music artists poured their hearts and souls into, and Come on Die Young embodies the spirit and raw power of the punk rock it yearns for.

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Even though Come on Die Young is now considered to be one of their strongest outings, at the time it was met with lukewarm reviews as many critics thought it failed to live up to the hype.  But that didn’t stop the band from approaching their next project with their irreverent sense of humour and desire to defy expectations still firmly intact.  Rock Action, based on its title, suggests a return to their roots in heavy metal-tinged post-rock – but as to be expected with Mogwai by this point, their album and song titles weren’t reflective of the way they sounded at all.

Tracks like “You Don’t Know Jesus’’ and “Robot Chant’’ channel the destructive spirit of “Like Herod,’’ but Rock Action them further expand their musical palette and continue to forge a path of artistic experimentation and unpredictable forward strides.  Rock Action would hint at the electronica that would feature more significantly on their next album, Happy Songs for Happy People – but Rock Action is an album rooted in surprise.

Opener “Sine Waves’’ sounds like a hybrid mutation of Sigur Rós and industrial, while “Take Me Somewhere Nice’’ is a symphonic odyssey of swirling violins and ethereal whimsy.  “Dial: Revenge,” which features vocals from Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, includes lush orchestral arrangements – as does “2 Rights Make One Wrong’’ featuring Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody (but you probably wouldn’t even recognise his inclusion if you didn’t check the linear notes or the internet).

Album closer “Secret Pint’’ is a beautiful triumph, once again showcasing Stuart’s vocal talents over a downbeat acoustic guitar, subtle piano, string arrangements and percussion.  It’s the closest the band have ever come to a folk song and further proof of their versatility.  Rock Action is a gem of an album, and it’s also a significant one as it served as a transitional bridge for their next effort.

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Happy Songs for Happy People is a polished amalgamation of the albums which came before, and thus is the perfect representation of what the band were all about in 2003 – and it’s probably the best starting point for new listeners who want to hear a cliff notes version of the band before making any commitments.

Following Rock Action, many presumed that Mogwai would be headed in a softer, electronic direction – and to an extent they did here with the more frequent use of synthesizers.  That said, the collision of fuzzy-guitars and ambient soundscapes which endeared them to people in the first place returns in Happy Songs for Happy People – only with the electronic passages and multi-instrumentalist they’d explored following Come on Die Young also in full effect.

“I Know What You Are but What Am I?’’ is the most notable surprise on the record; the best way to describe it is a trip hop nursery rhyme.  “Hunted by a Freak’’ also contains a trip hop feel and is quite reminiscent of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack.

Overall, Happy Songs for Happy People is just a confident merging of the experimentation of their trajectory up until then, but when brought together makes for an almighty juggernaut of an album.

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In 2006, Mogwai’s infamous manager Alan McGee stated that Mr. Beast was “… probably the best art rock album I’ve been involved with since [My Bloody Valentine’s iconic album] Loveless.  In fact, it’s possibly better than Loveless.’’  While music is subjective and everyone has their own tastes and opinions, it’s not better than Loveless.  In fact, Mr. Beast is Mogwai’s weakest album; though it is still a strong record which demonstrates their powerhouse ability to create beauty from gloom and ferocity, it’s also their least inspired.

Mr. Beast is the only Mogwai album which comes across as “business as usual’’ It’s solid throughout, but it only ever hits spectacular notes occasionally.  “I Chose Horses’’ is a highlight; an elegiac ballad featuring a spoken world poem from Tetsuya Fukagawa of Japanese hardcore stalwarts Envy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Glasgow Mega-Snake’’ roars with an unbridled rage post-metal titans Pelican would be proud of.  “Acid Flood’’ on the other hand retains their knack for surprising excursions into further leftfield territory; in this case a mournful country yarn.  But despite the admirable intent of their decision to experiment with another new style, the track itself is bland.

However, for the most part, Mr. Beast is typically impressive for a band who can seemingly do no wrong.  It’s just nowhere near their best work.

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Believe it or not, The Hawk is Howling is the band’s first exclusively instrumental album.  It also contains some of their most wonderfully titled song, like the bleakly apt “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’’ and the all-out romantic, “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School.’’  And fortunately, the album itself lives up to the high calibre of such glorious song titles, even if it is, by this point, what we’ve come to know and love from Mogwai.

On this, their sixth studio album, it’s safe to say they’d honed their sound to perfection.  The Hawk is Howling sees them tread familiar ground, but it’s never sounded quite so rife with tension and paranoia just waiting to erupt – and when it does, multiple eargasms wait.  This is masterfully crafted post-rock that’s massive in scope and loud in volume, and if anything, it’s a crowd-pleaser from a band who understand their audience.

But it’s not a Mogwai album without a spanner thrown in the works for good measure. “The Sun Smells Too Loud’’ is that spanner; an upbeat, sun-drenched, psychedelic electronic number with a melody that’ll get stuck in your head for days, which serves as a reminder that – even amidst the doom and gloom – there’s always room for a celebration.

The Hawk is Howling occupies a comfortable spot in Mogwai’s trajectory.  While it doesn’t mark any significant leaps forward except for “The Sun Smells Too Loud’’ being a complete departure from their established sound, it’s perfectly finessed comfort zone music of the highest quality.

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This album was the first the band released on their own label, and in a way, it sounds like a band reinvigorated.  The hallmarks we’ve grown accustomed to throughout the years are present and accounted for – space-reaching soundscapes and crushing crescendos, the collision of soft and fuzzy dynamics, etc – but for the first time ever, there’s an overarching sense of emotive optimism imbued in the album’s mood.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was the first album they released through their own Rock Action label, so perhaps a new sense of full autonomy sparked them into a creative renaissance.  Take “Mexican Grand Prix’’ for example, which is the most unabashed pop song in their canon (even though it’s more of a krautrock song).  “Rano Pano’’ is an instrumental space rock anthem that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Grandaddy album.

The album also contains some mid-tempo tracks which venture into terrains unexplored by the band until Hardcore. “San Pedro’’ is a riff-orientated and danceable, while “George Square Thatcher Death Party’’ is probably the closest the band has ever come to sounding like ‘traditional’ post-punk, even though the influence of that genre has always been apparent in their music.

Hardcore Will Never Die is a statement of artistic expression, that even so far into their career, Mogwai weren’t willing to settle into a comfort zone – for themselves, or their fans.

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Mogwai’s eighth album is another misleading title; one that suggests a change of direction away from the cloudy skies of post-rock into the neon-drenched fields of electronic hedonism.  Rave Tapes, which sounds like an album title from the ecstasy-fuelled halcyon days UK acid house – won’t set dancefloors alight, but it is their most electronic-focused album, albeit in a Mogwai way.  Analogue synths are the beating heart of most of the tracks, and the influence of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream is more prominent than the Slint, Sonic Youth and Black Sabbath influence of old.

With the band focusing predominantly on soundtrack work nowadays, Rave Tapes is currently their latest studio album.  Whether the band goes comes full circle or continues to spread their wings is anyone’s guess, but let’s hope it’s the latter. as it’s an impressive effort that walks a fine line between the tried and tested, while also flourishing in the krautrock, electronic niches they only hinted at in the past.

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In addition to their studio albums, Mogwai have enjoyed steady work composing scores for films and television shows, starting with the critically acclaimed Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in 2006, then subsequently followed by The Fountain (2006), Les Revenants (2013), Atomic (2016) and Before the Flood (2016), respectively.  Their style lends itself perfectly to the screen, and their musical contributions have encapsulated the spirit of the projects they’ve worked on.  Les Revenants marks some of their best music to date, and serves as a stunning reminder that the band can excel at dipping their toes into any pond.

Conclusion

From the very outset, Mogwai have proven themselves to be a band like no other.  Despite the emergence of many imitators who have tried to replicate their sound throughout the years, they remain one step ahead of the curve always with their unique mastery and ability to keep evolving with each new release.  After all this time, they remain a vital band in alternative music circles and continue to lead by example – and going by the strength of their last two studio albums, they appear to be as openminded and creatively on-point as ever.  Hopefully with their next release they continue to progress and achieve success through sticking it to the status quo.  The legacy of Mogwai will never die, but you will.

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