It's tough for me to be objective about Mogwai. It was they who almost singlehandedly* reignited my passion for music, which had been wilting severely amid the doldrums of the mid-to-late ’90s. (Turns out that sufficient ambient exposure to Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene is enough to make you lose faith in an entire art form.) The first I heard of Mogwai was John Mulvey’s review of Young Team in the NME, October 1997. It spoke of “sprawling, reckless music” that was “intensely beautiful” yet contained “searing riff-madness any self-respecting death metal band would kill for”. Who could resist such a prospect? It was alluring enough that, for the first time in my life, I shelled out for a record (on double vinyl, even) without tasting a note. The opener was tantalising enough, warm drones humming as a voice hesitatingly describes the band in almost absurdly glowing terms. Then the ominous rumble of ‘Like Herod’ loomed into earview, and before I knew it that ungainly, incongruous, bastard surprise of a RIFF punched my face right off of my head. Twice in a row. How could something so vicious be so gorgeous? Deep, instant love.
Over the next few years, many a live experience cemented our relationship. Their headline slot at the Astoria in 1999 was a seminal experience. They were beautiful, of course. But even after many years of metal gigs, the volume levels here were revelatory. Mogwai were unfeasibly, ridiculously vast, so much so that for a while everything just went… white… as my brain reeled from the sensory overload. The air itself seemed to be on the verge of friction-induced ignition. It felt like hot pink rain on my skin. Young kids next to me huddled on the floor, their hands over their ears (one of them threw up on my shoe). It was pure visceral pleasure from all-consuming sound – it was the first time I’d experienced this level of blissful sonic extremity, and it ensured that I’d later fall for the likes of Merzbow, Sunn o))) and MBV. And yet, even amid the extremity and brutality, Mogwai were unashamedly, nakedly emotional – romantic, even. Years later, my (now, still) wife and I used ‘Helicon 1’ at the start of our wedding ceremony.
But over the years, they changed. Or, rather, I did. In truth, Mogwai failed to be what they never were, but what my inner teenage metalhead wanted them to be: ALL THE LOUD BITS, ALL THE TIME. With every album, the gnarly passages were scaled back more and more. I kept up, but didn’t really understand any more. Their power seemed diluted by their countless inferior imitators. The words ‘Rock Action’ began to seem like a cruel tease. It was only with The Hawk is Howling, specifically with the way that ‘I’m Jim Morrison’ so subtly and inexorably blossoms, that I finally grasped what they’d been doing all along – striving for a certain form of nameless, profound human beauty, and doing so with increasing eloquence, even if they often whispered about it when the younger me wanted them to yell themselves hoarse.
After the slavish fanboy devotion and a period of mild disappointment/ambivalence, I’ve now entered a more mature and appreciative phase. The most recent encounter was at the Grand Ole Opry on their home turf. Turns out they’re older too. Whodathunkit? More assured and confident. Technically impeccable. Funny as fuck. It was wondrous, but still… they seemed smaller. The loud bits don’t seem to convey quite the same absurd world-ending/creating power that they used to. Have they smoothed out the ultra-dynamics? Or am I comparing the actual experience before me with an impossibly exaggerated memory? In all fairness, the unabated yen they gave me for extreme volume has probably left my gig-ravaged ears in no fit state to judge.
The prospect of a new Mogwai album is therefore a source of both quivering excitement and queasy trepidation. Hardcore… begins with a grandiose mid-paced opener a la ‘Jim Morrison’ or ‘Auto Rock’ – piano, broad dramatic strokes, slow evolution and stratospheric guitar climax, the main guitar line in polyrhythmic relief to the main pulse. Perhaps not 100% satisfying in itself, but an effective, if wrong-footing introduction. ‘Mexican Grand Prix is the first of several surprises – a lithe, sombre pop song with a krautrock pulse and android vocals. Blindfolded and handcuffed, you’d never guess this was Mogwai. Stereolab, maybe? Quickspace?
‘Rano Pano’ is extraordinary, one of their finest tunes yet. The hugely fuzzy central riff is at once alien and familiar, eternal but indefinable, complex but natural, somewhere between a lost Gallic folk melody and South-East Asian temple chant. It has the feel of a sculpture unlocked from marble, something that’s always been there but no one noticed it before.
The downbeat ‘Death Rays’ and ‘Letters to the Metro’ are typical of much of the band’s work since CODY. A sense of melancholy, expressed through pianos, guitars and measured restraint. Melodically beautiful and sonically rich, but ultimately Mogwai at a stroll. The pace hastens with ‘San Pedro’ – an uncharacteristically speedy instrumental rocker, zippier and less brutal than its precursors ‘Batcat’ and ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’, more wiry and sinewy, strewn with intricate guitar patterns. The most optimistic tune here, and not just in terms of its celebratory epithet (the first rule of Mogwai: the titles mean nothing), ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ revisits the motorik pulse with vibing synths and processed vocals. ‘How to be a Werewolf’ is softer, but no less redolent of the spirit of Dinger that courses through much of this album. Very pretty, very cheerfully sad, climaxing in some lavish, wibbly Robert Fripp phrasings and a pleasingly incongruous big arena-rock key shift towards the end.
The last two tracks are the most old-school. They pull the tricks that those who don’t really listen to Mogwai usually associate with them – quiet intros exploding into plesiosaur-bruising riffs. But they’re great examples of the form. ‘Too Raging to Cheers’ has a brilliantly ugly and brutal cascading payoff, while ‘You’re Lionel Richie’ is simpler, its melody extending into a glorious climactic, low-end assault. Both are over way, way too soon. But I would say that.
2011 finds Mogwai in undeniably great shape, exploring plenty of bold new ideas and refining old ones, with enough familiar territory to not scare away the faithful. They’re smarter, more proficient, certainly more subtle… in virtually all of the ways that count, they’re better, more fully realised than ever. The only downside is that I hold them to an impossible standard. At one time they saved my life with sound. But fourteen years on, they’re still enriching it – I can’t ask for more than that.
* See also The Monsoon Bassoon.