Getting Into: Mogwai
|Written by:||RaduP, Netzach|
Joel: This is really a band best experienced in a live setting, where they perform even their softest songs at ear-splitting volumes, and a lot of their best stuff is found by digging through the myriad EPs and singles wedged in between studio releases. We can’t cover it all in a Getting Into article, naturally, or anybody interested in a rundown of the band would be none the wiser after reading. In this article, we’re mainly presenting their full-length discography, including their several soundtrack albums and some more noteworthy EPs while leaving out heaps of minor releases, remix albums, and live albums to primarily give an account of their musical evolution over the years. In the spirit of post-rock’s cinematic approach to songwriting, here’s a probably entirely fictional anecdote about discovering the world of Mogwai:
The ear-melting scream of a “Batcat” pierced her ears, and the moderately drunken audience member who moments ago had violently protested, “Wait a minute! This isn’t metal!” saw fit to show herself out of the auditorium, hail a cab, find out her “Fuck Off Money” was all but gone, do a runner as if “Hunted By A Freak” at the “Mexican Grand Prix”, trip and fall into water. Fishing her up from a fountain, a policeman told her “Travel Is Dangerous”. “Take Me Somewhere Nice”, she replied, and found herself driven back to the same auditorium, where she found the same rock band using rock instruments in non-rocky ways to create moods, emotions, and textures rather than riffs, solos, and song structures, now that the schizophrenic tension of parade number “Like Herod” no longer scared her witless.
Buying their debut album on vinyl, she went home to download it illegally off the internet, and while it reminded her of Slint’s Spiderland and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, the contrast between this band’s whispering quiescence / tectonic cacophony quickly made her realize how a sizable share of her favourite metal styles find their origins traced back to that neither-pop-nor-prog-yet-both-and-more-as-in-less-is-more compositional approach to rock music, where dynamics and textures often double as lyrics; a style that we now, for brevity’s sake yet quite fittingly, call post-rock; “beyond rock”. Mogwai, however, maintain that they are merely playing “serious guitar music”, and that’s pretty much what they do.
1997 - Ten Rapid (Collected Recordings 1996-1997)
Radu: Mogwai’s story started in 1996 with the “Tuner” single, which was followed by more singles and appearances in various-artists compilation albums. Some of it was either compiled in, or re-recorded for, Ten Rapid, so it was neither the band’s first release nor the band’s debut, but acts as a collection of what the band was up to in their early days. So, it has a pretty weird spot in the discography. The sound of Mogwai wasn’t yet properly formed, with a lot of sound experiments and a lot of influence from slowcore, noise rock, and space rock creeping in, and placing it pretty close in sound to the first wave of post-rock, with acts like Bark Psychosis or Slint. The sound quality is also pretty spotty, and it being a compilation makes the quality and the flow pretty inconsistent. And yet its importance cannot be overstated. Songs like “Ithica 27 Φ 9” and “Helicon 1” pretty much set the blueprint for crescendo-core, and “Summer” still retains its charms to this day. Even before properly finding their footing, Mogwai were onto something.
1997 - Mogwai Young Team
Joel: This article is obviously called Getting Into: Mogwai, but spoiler alert: start here. Without Mogwai Young Team, reasons for featuring Mogwai on this site would be even fewer and further between, but make no mistake: Mogwai Young Team is melodic, pretty, and serene only when not blasting your eardrums out with some of the heaviest, most irreverent “serious guitar music” you’ll ever have the pleasure of playing all over again. There’s also the not-so-small fact of this album being a huge influence, directly or indirectly, on metal. To an extent, pick any metal band you happen to enjoy that tends to be mentioned as atmospheric, post-metal, or the like. What you like about it is likely to include the moods and visuals (or whatever shape music assumes in your mind’s eye) created by a focus that’s more on textures, layers, and timbre, and less on harmony, riffs, and structure. Mogwai Young Team might not be at the very top of the post-rock pedigree chart, but it’s surely the most well known of post-rock originators, and these days, an uncountable number of albums, bands, and entire scenes can one way or another trace their influences back to it.
The album opens with a sample that actually summarizes post-rock’s cinematic approach to songwriting quite cleverly: “music is bigger than words and wider than pictures”. Indeed, in lacking both words and pictures, the layered, repeated motifs of “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” give way to a melodic climax that turns eardrums into tools for stringing words into stories and pictures into movies. “Like Herod” starts out with several minutes of an irresolute bass line being repeated in subtle variations, for just about slightly too long… in the best possible way. Right about when the tension starts nibbling on your patience, the song erupts. I mean, it really only turns up the volume and starts repeating the second riff (out of the two that make up over 10 minutes) for slightly too long as well, and then doing it all over again, but it is a glorious, emotional piece of music that sounds as uncomfortable as, well, “Like Herod”. Curiously, following this highly radio-unfriendly number is the bass-hooky “Summer”, which was featured in a Nike commercial of all places, and the 16-minute beast “Mogwai Fear Satan”, which puts the “Satan” in “dynamics” and seems to never be performed live in quite the same way. It’s all about tension and release, and the abstract sensations a couple of deftly arranged layers of noise can conjure up in the listener’s mind. It’s all about the feels, really, and if Mogwai Young Team doesn’t spark at least two or three emotional reactions in you… seek help elsewhere. This is what music is all about, folks.
1999 - Come On Die Young
Radu: Come On Die Young, or CODY for short, must’ve come as quite a surprise after the immediate and explosive Young Team. It’s Mogwai’s sparsest record, almost renouncing the dynamics that they’ve set as part of their sound, instead lingering in reflective subtle textures and plodding dark lethargy. It’s less of a post-rock album actually, being more in line with slowcore in the vein of Low and Duster. There’s still some rowdy noise in “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia”, and “Christmas Steps” is about as Mogwai as Mogwai gets, but “Cody” is pretty much straight up slowcore chamber pop, complete with vocals, and also it’s that Mogwai track that Deafheaven covered. Because of its emphasis on textures, atmospheres and slow paces, it does take a bit for the songs to sink in, and the slowcore direction does make CODY feel like it would do with some vocals outside of the title track and the samples (the album itself starts with a sample of Iggy Pop defending punk rock). Lacking the same immediacy, CODY is another case of really high highs, and the lows aren’t too bad, but they drag the package as a whole down.
2000 - EP + 6
Radu: A lot of the EPs Mogwai have released after this are usually promos or outtakes from studio albums, but EP + 6 is a compilation of their first three EPs, 1997's 4 Satin, 1998's No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew), and 1999's EP, all of which are pretty standalone. Even though it compiles three different release sessions, the entire thing comes along pretty well. Well, the pure noise of “Stereodee” makes more sense in its original context, and “Xmas Steps” was made even better when re-recorded for CODY. But other than that EP + 6 is pretty varied, with abstract dub on “Superheroes of BMX”, guest vocals from Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat’s on “Now You're Taken”, the violin filled-crescendo of “Xmas Steps”, and “Stanley Kubrick” is, as the name implies, their most cinematic song up to this point. Perhaps it’s a bit too all over the place, but it keeps showing just how wildly out there Mogwai were in their early days.
2001 - Rock Action
Radu: Quite ironic that an album titled “Rock Action” is a Mogwai album without a lot of action. The album isn’t that far off from Come On Die Young in terms of being more subdued, focused on textures, and full of slowcore influence, taking them quite close to their peers in Arab Strap. But the album is decidingly more on the post-rock side, and a quick look at the tracklist shows a pretty big jump from CODY’s 67 minutes to Rock Action’s 38. The sound palette itself is even larger, with a lot of extra strings, electronics and synths to make a track like “You Don’t Know Jesus” sound properly grandiose. Compared to the bleakness of CODY, Rock Action is more bittersweet, and even if the YouTube-recommended-core of “Take Me Somewhere Nice” would have fit on CODY’s vibe, and even if I always felt like it would’ve fit better later in the album, there’s very little on Rock Action that is filler. But that’s mostly because of how compact the album is, and it feels like it’s quite quickly moving from centerpiece to centerpiece, with only bits of experimental interludes and guest performances in Welsh from Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals.
2001 - My Father, My King
Radu: My Father, My King is a one-song EP (so maybe a single), that Mogwai see as a companion piece to Rock Action. If Rock Action reintroduced some of the dynamics of Young Team, My Father, My King is their rowdiest and most expansive song since “Mogwai Fear Satan”. At a whooping 23 minutes, it is the longest Mogwai song, feeling more in line with a Godspeed You! Black Emperor than anything that the band has put out since. With its colossal crescendo, bursts of noise in its ending, melodies based on a Jewish prayer, to say that My Father, My King is massive is an understatement. It’s regularly used to close Mogwai gigs, sometimes even extended, so it has a very very unique spot here. If Mogwai would continue to refine their cinematic and melodic side from now on, this is only because they already perfected the immensity with this song, as if they hadn’t done it already with “Mogwai Fear Satan”.
2003 - Happy Songs For Happy People
Joel: Though hardly a band easily pigeonholed, Mogwai to this day have a sort of aesthetic and attitude in their music. An approach, if you will, that results in a sound that’s unmistakably identifiable as theirs while the precise ingredients remain frustratingly tricky to put your finger on. It’s probably another “greater than the sum of its parts” deal. Having explored various aural domains on their earlier albums, on this album they expanded Rock Action’s use of synthesizers and vocals and combined it with the mellow melancholy and focused songwriting of CODY. They even threw in some reminders that they were still the ones who made Mogwai Young Team, and they could (and can) still crank it up loud when they want to. Barry Burns’ Vocoder antics on fan favourite “Hunted By A Freak” as well as the electronic trip-hop shuffle and twinkling keyboard earworms on “I Know You Are But Who Am I?” remain staple numbers at gigs to this day. Don’t get too comfortable, because smack in the middle of the album, “Ratts Of The Capital” razes a building right next to you to ensure you’re still listening, and then finishes off by demolishing your house too. While the idea of what makes Mogwai Mogwai may well differ between listeners, Happy Songs For Happy People was where the Mogwai sound really crystallized, and it has remained recognizable ever since.
2006 - Mr Beast
Radu: Up until this point, there were various twists and turns in Mogwai’s sound that would eventually crystalize. From rowdy dynamics, melancholic slowcore, noisy experiments, to vocoders and synths. Mr Beast feels like the last Mogwai album that is fundamentally different to what came ‘fore it. Here Mogwai finally became the type of band for which it would make sense that henceforth every other album would be a soundtrack. Mr Beast is cinematic as hell, with the sound more streamlined and accessible, with all tracks running between three and six minutes, while still retaining most of what made Mogwai interesting. There’s already great range within the first three songs, with “Auto Rock” having the most cinematic crescendo I’ve ever heard, and “Glasgow Mega-Snake” being extremely muscular in its riffing, and “Acid Flood” being the slowcore vocals song. There are Mogwai albums that are more experimental, more fun, with better highlights, but there’s hard to beat Mr Beast’s consistency and production quality. Perhaps a bit too “manufactured” and in line with bands that Mogwai themselves influenced, but they manufactured a beast, tamed as it is.
2006 - Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Radu: Thus begins Mogwai’s streak into soundtrack albums. And it’s perhaps a bit odd that it would begin with a documentary about football. Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane is like a name from my distant past, when I was actively interested in football. I obviously played a lot of FIFA just around the time that Zizou was still playing, and I saw that infamous headbutt live. And yet, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a recording of another match, a Real Madrid vs Villarreal one, all through the perspective of Zidane. And with him being just one of the dozens of players involved in the match, most of it focuses on mannerisms and other movements. It’s a side of “atmospheric” that I never thought of before. And Mogwai are the perfect band to amplify that, convinced of the project after the director had a screening of the film with a remix of “Mogwai Fear Satan” accompanying it. Having to work as a backing to something else, Mogwai sound minimal and humble, no longer roaring or grabbing attention. It’s soothing and dramatic, but stretched out over more than one hour, it’s hard to really have it stand on its own as a music album.
2008 - The Hawk Is Howling
Joel: Have a look at that album title. Now, have a look at the cover art. Look at the title again, then the artwork. They fit well together, don’t they? The Hawk Is Howling is sonically something of an end of an era; a streak of albums connected by musical influences and compositional approach that Mogwai tentatively began with the transitional Rock Action, cemented on Happy Songs For Happy People, and mastered on Mr. Beast. Then, they showed us they’d better come up with some new ideas, because The Hawk Is Howling isn’t so much Mogwai on autopilot (because their autopilot flies a jet fighter plane) as it is Mogwai performing a couple of admittedly great songs, but ultimately mostly rehashing old ideas. “Batcat” is still a fantastic stoner metal cut (that literally shook the foundations of the venue when I last saw them live), but its older brother “Glasgow Mega-Snake” from Mr. Beast is still better. “I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School” is a nice piano-driven song that everybody already kind of heard on Mr. Beast as well (not to mention earlier on even this album). Yeah, not this band’s finest moment. Look at the title. Now at the artwork. Hawks don’t howl, and that’s a god-damn eagle.
2011 - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
Joel: “Though their debut album is an uncontested classic, I actually like their seventh studio release the best.” Yeah, how often do you hear this about a band? Keep that list of other bands with impressively influential cult debuts yet seventh album as career pinnacle in your pocket, thank you very much. Okay, it’s hard choosing favourites (or even least favourites) in a discography as high-caliber as Mogwai’s, but Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will is no doubt the album I revisit the most often of theirs, and for good reason. The Hawk Is Howling was a lukewarm end of a chapter, but as luck would have it, Hardcore... not only turned the page, but closed the book. Addressing pretty much all the issues shared by preceding albums, it’s one hell of a comeback album. Where The Hawk Is Howling (and, to a lesser extent, its predecessors) suffered from rehashed songwriting and monotone pacing, “White Noise” opens this album with as fine a post-rock crescendo you could want, and is followed up by the uncharacteristically (back then, anyway) catchy kraut-pop of “Mexican Grand Prix”, which would set a template for many of Mogwai’s more recent post-punky actual hit songs. They’d do just fine as a proper post-punk band, but they wouldn’t give a damn. As if to dispute any (sort of justified) complaints about not being all that entertaining, “Rano Pano” is basically an instrumental indie rock banger, the hilariously titled “St. George Square Thatcher Death Party” basically a non-instrumental one, and the wonderfully upbeat variety of music on Hardcore… is topped off by the slow-grinding sludge of “You’re Lionel Ritchie”, which remains one of the finest songs in the band’s repertoire. In case you, for god knows whatever reason, didn’t dive into Mogwai’s discography by starting with the debut, I’d easily recommend this one.
2013 - Les Revenants
Radu: A two-season French series about the dead coming back to haunt a small town sounds like an interesting premise for a series, and post-rock does have a bit of a history with undead movies ever since Godspeed You! Black Emperor lended their music to 28 Days Later, so Mogwai providing the soundtrack seems only fitting. Preceded by an EP with an outtake and a few different versions, Les Revenants is subdued and ominous, at least by Mogwai standards. As it is described, it’s calmly unsettling, thus sits in an uncanny place between dreamy and dark. Having not seen the actual series, I don’t know how well it acts as a soundtrack, but as its own album, there’s enough here to keep it interesting, even with its repetitive nature. There is one song containing vocals, a cover of Washington Phillips’ “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, but the rest works in a very subtle evocative manner.
2014 - Rave Tapes
Joel: Another edgy album title, and with super stylish artwork that makes you think Rave Tapes must have been as sharp a turn off the beaten path as Hardcore… was. Not quite, yet still sort of. This is mostly a good thing. Tracks such as “Simon Ferocious” and “The Lord Is Out Of Control” could easily have fit on to an album as way back as Happy Songs For Happy People, if not for the buzzing, gnarly saw-tone vibes resulting from Barry Burns’ newfound fascination with good ol’ analog synthesizers that permeate the entire record. The songs are not as discernible from each other as on the previous album but, on the contrary, end up working with each other to give the album a recognisable identity as a whole. Sure, the less-is-more, mellow jam “Repelish” will not raise any eyebrows, except it is carried by a hilarious rant about the Satanism of playing “Stairway To Heaven” backwards (sampled from an American radio show) which makes it… entertaining, at least. The real show-stealer on Rave Tapes, however, is clearly “Remurdered”. Its first half consists of a hard-hitting but sort of gently assaulting synth arpeggio that makes you look for connections to the album title, and the second half consists of a highly danceable, dense electronic beat added to the very same synth hook, which is then justifiably repeated for another couple of minutes. It really never gets old, but the drawback of writing a stellar song like “Remurdered” is that the rest of the songs on the album rarely will be given a chance to get old.
2016 - Atomic
Joel: On Atomic, Mogwai soundtracks “Storyville - Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise”, a BBC documentary about nuclear power (and atom bombs, of course). This band is a no-brainer for composing soundtracks, really, but I have no interest in sports, and while I liked the Twin Peaks-y Les Revenants series quite a lot, I found neither of these soundtracks to do particularly well on their own. Atomic is easily the one I like the most, and arguably the soundtrack of theirs that could most effortlessly pass as a proper studio release. Appropriate to the subject matter, there is a modern, techy vibe running throughout the track list, and when the songs work as standalone musical pieces, they work surprisingly well. The better cuts include the ominously pulsating synths backed by loud shuffle drumwork on “SCRAM”, the dark but jovial “scientists doing nothing in a lab on film”-beat of “U-235” (that’s what you make bombs from, boom!), and my favourite piece “Pripyat” which slowly churns out a foreboding, descending synth riff turned up so loud you can nearly swim through the dense growling. Sort of like swimming through a nuclear meltdown, except living to replay the song. In a sense, and depending on mood, I’d say Atomic puts those analog synths to better use than Rave Tapes. Except for “Remurdered”, that one’s still the balls.
2017 - Every Country's Sun
Radu: After twenty years of making music together, no one can blame Mogwai for settling down on a certain sound. At this point they had lost a founding member with John Cummings’ departure, and there was little left to prove. Every Country’s Sun is a bit by-the-numbers, containing bits and pieces of sounds from their past, with a bit less slowcore and more space rock this time around. There’s enough variety to display in the soundscapes, especially with the increased emphasis on psychedelia, but there’s isn’t that much excitement to be had in how they’re handled. Mogwai make awe-inspiring soundscapes, and they’re good at them, but there’s only so much you can do with just that after so long. And it’s not like Dave Fridmann’s production is doing much to help. And at nearly an hour of runtime, it’s still the “rock song” on the album, “Party In The Dark” that remains the most memorable. At worst it’s just inoffensive and meandering, and it still manages to have some highs, and be a pretty pleasant listen. With a different producer and a leaner tracklist, it would’ve been an interesting detour into psychedelia.
2018 - Kin
Radu: This is the first time that Mogwai were hired to do something like an American science fiction movie, and even if Kin is far from a blockbuster, its soundtrack does seem more in line with a movie in that vein. It’s a lot more synth-focused, with a certain sci-fi aura, and it has a very Hollywood dramatic feeling to it. Somehow this makes for a more direct experience to the soundtrack, which is also reflected in the leaner runtime at barely over 40 minutes. It’s admittedly pretty different from what Mogwai usually do, and even if you can clearly tell in the flow that it’s a soundtrack album, it is great to hear a different kind of album from the band, even if the end result isn’t necessarily fantastic or that memorable.
2020 - ZeroZeroZero
Radu: The latest of Mogwai’s soundtrack albums is for an Italian crime drama about cocaine trade, and what should in theory sound like the most adrenaline filled of premises (other than Zidane’s full football game), it actually results in Mogwai’s most ambient album. And Mogwai don’t make bad ambient music, after all most of their music works on moody textures, but on ZeroZeroZero a lot of it just comes and goes, spread out over 20 tracks and 69 minutes. It has some highlights, but if there’s one Mogwai album that you can forget you even had it on, it’s this one. At least the other soundtracks had a very discernable mood they were trying to evoke.
2021 - As The Love Continues
Radu: Set to release on the 25th anniversary of Mogwai’s first single, it’s obvious that As The Love Continues is a pretty celebratory release. And as is often the case with celebratory releases, these tend both to have the feeling of a band really glad of their experience and legacy, but also sticking to a certain trademark that they’ve set up. And there are few songs in Mogwai’s discography that sound as triumphant as “Ceiling Granny” or as nostalgic as “Ritchie Sacremento”, this album’s answer to the previous’ “Party In The Dark”. But just like Every Country’s Sun, the production sets a barrier of enjoyability, which gets pretty obvious once you hear how awfully the guitar crashes in “Ritchie Sacremento”, ruining what would otherwise be my most listened to song from this album. Compared to the psychedelic undertones of the previous album, As The Love Continues is both a bit more rock-ish, with some slight detours into shoegaze, and with some progressive electronica, but nothing that the band really commits to more than a nuance. And with an even longer tracklist, this one surprisingly doesn’t lose its steam as quickly. Every crescendo and texture is, at this point, a slightly different version of something Mogwai and their myriad of influenced bands had already done, but there’s a reason why this exact trademarked sound caught on this much. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s what they want to do.
Radu: And here is where we catch up to Mogwai. Their quarter-of-a-century career may not have had twists-and-turns too drastic, and a lot of the differences in ratings here can be accounted to either being soundtracks that don’t work as well as albums, having less than desirable production, being a bit inconsistent or by-the-numbers. But I stand to claim that none of Mogwai’s releases, no matter how plagued by the aforementioned issues, are bad, or even skippable. There’s a mastery of the post-rock sound that few bands have quite like Mogwai. There are big crescendos, quiet-loud dynamics, detours into slowcore, post-punk, space rock, ambient, electronica, shoegaze, and all of it creates a discography more varied than meets the eye. Simply put, there’s probably a Mogwai song for everybody.
And maybe it would be better to start with a compilation-ish album like Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 or a live album like Special Moves, or maybe you can check out these two playlists that we compiled, with a very relative criteria of assignation for a band versed in switching between the two:
Comments: 8 Visited by: 60 users
Hits total: 554 | This month: 554