Sunday, February 20, 2011

In defence of Mogwai...

Do Mogwai need defending? Probably not. I'm sure these Scottish lads would take on all comers if it got down to a fight but I feel I need to defend them. The reason for this is that I read a lot of music press and as time goes on, it seems that Mogwai are often maligned for existing longer than some people would have hoped - releasing albums that are perceived as not as revolutionary as their early works. I think that's crap and here's why.

I remember the first time I saw Mogwai was at Newtown RSL in 1999. It was one of those occasions where I didn’t really know too much about the band but my friend said I really, really had to go and see them. I’m glad I really, really went because this was one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever seen. This was just before the release of Come On Die Young and they were playing songs from that album and the ep called ep (later re-named ep+6). The most enduring memory I have of the night is them playing an epic elongated version of Rage: Man. As the waves of distortion heaved and swayed around the anchoring piano line, it seemed as if the band were levitating as the music became more and more intense. I still get chills thinking about this.

At the time, I’d heard a bit of this kind of music before (I shudder to say Post-Rock) – mainly Tortoise who I confess did little for me. However, Mogwai had this visceral edge that trod the line between mournful beauty and unrelenting brutality which made me a convert instantly. I purchsed their back catalogue and eagerly awaited each new release. However, I started to notice after the release of the My Father, My King ep that people started to get a bit dismissive of them. I remember spouting off the joys of Happy Songs For Happy People to be met with ‘it sounds like Mogwai by numbers’ as well as reading some pretty average reviews. Anyone revisiting that album might be surprised to find that some of Mogwai’s most moving and beautiful music is on that record but you wouldn’t know it from most fans of the band. They keep blathering on about Young Team and Like Herod. Don’t get me wrong, both are amazing but my question is just how exactly can Mogwai not be a disappointment to these people? As perfect as some people may think these albums are, musicians (or humans for that matter) cannot stand still in time (unless they're AC/DC).

Mogwai mine and explore a definite sonic landscape and while their palette is pretty broad, you can always pick a Mogwai song. As such, their sound is defined while constantly evolving within this template but that doesn’t seem to be enough. When Young Team came out it was probably pretty revolutionary (10 minute songs! No vocals!) and no matter what they do they/the fans will never be able to replicate that first rush of discovery. The music on the later albums is not groundbreaking the way the early stuff was because it’s already been done – BY Mogwai. However, that doesn’t make those albums any less beautiful or worse than the early ones – it just makes them NOT the early ones. Seriously, do you want them to release a barbershop album or something?

The reason I bring this up is because I’ve been reading some pretty begrudging reviews of their latest album Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will (one of the greatest album titles of all time I would contend). A lot of the reviews mention how lame the last few albums are but I think that’s bullshit and I’m calling it as such. In the eyes of the reviewer, they are lame because they didn’t re-write Like Herod five times. To be honest, some of my favourite Mogwai songs are from the latter albums and even though I have a special space in my heart for the first albums (and especially the ep), my taste has moved on (as has Mogwai’s music). In fact, my favourite Mogwai song is from the much maligned The Hawk is Howling (4.5 Pitchfork? Fuck off you wanker!).

The first song off this record, I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead encapsulates everything I love about the band in a single song. Plaintive piano, waves of distortion that lead to the an ecstatic and moving release. Seriously, at 3:06 the song starts to build for almost a minute until it breaks at 3:56. Every time I listen to it I get chills - essentially, they have created the perfect Mogwai moment in that 1 minute of space for me. The release is so heart breakingly beautiful that I can’t fathom why these albums are derided as they are. I listen to Mogwai often and I can’t say that any of their records sounds like they’re phoning it in. Music by numbers does not seem to be an option for this band, everything bleeds with exploration, graft and beauty.

Anyhow, without being too much a blabbering fan boy, my eventual point is that when I hear these songs I still get the giddy rush I always did when listening to Mogwai and I can't quite understand why the later albums are not embraced as much as the earlier ones. The music is good (if not great), is that not enough?


I'm still digesting Hardcore but here's my favourite later Mogwai songs:

I Know You Are But What Am I?
Ratts of the Capital
Auto Rock
Emergency Trap
Friend of the night
I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School
Terrific Speech



  1. I like the aural variety and pace of Hardcore... it's as though they've found the instrumental version of melodic song variety, except they do it sonically. I think they're maturing as craftsmen. Compare something like Come On DY - that was all of a mood. Hardcore has way more colour and tone. I think it's their best since Happy Songs.

    And for all the hacks who want endless MFSatan affect - I say: you get up there and make something as emotional and contoured as the Mog. You get out and make something rather than blathering. Make something that reflects the tenor of our times, and all without words. Cf Perry Farrell: Why don't you get up and sing ME something.

  2. Rino - I like your style. Totally agree on the differences between the albums and bonus points for any mention of Jane's Addiction.

  3. What a great post, JH (and you tell 'em Reens).

    I love IJMID, good choice Jon. I really thought The Hawk is Howling had some great tracks - personal fave: "I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School". But I would agree (ack!) with the P4K review that their experiment with a more synthy sound wasn't completely successful. Give the guys a break, though, - like you said how many versions of "Like Herod" and "MFS" can we listen to? Actually, "Like Herod" is way too loud for me so one is enough.

    I do like how on the latest they are introducing more keyboards to compliment the guitar. It's quite refreshing. "Mexican Grand Prix" is downright DANCEABLE! When have you ever been able to say that about a Mogwai song? And the opening riffs of San Pedro are like a hardcore version of New Order.

    That said, I have a kind of complicated relationship with these guys. I can't even listen to CODY or EP 6 because it's way too evocative of a certain time. I bloody adore HSFHP and it is by far my favourite album. If there is a more perfect song that "Killing all the Flies" then I don't know it. I used to listen to it at least three times a day for a while there.

    But to be honest, sometimes when I listen to them I feel like I should just grow up already. So maybe that sentiment echos how other listeners are responding to their latest albums? I also sometimes feel like they are telling me the same thing over and over. And sometimes I like the contours of the ride (and Reens so eloquently described) and other times I feel stuck in a groove and need to move on with my life.

    Either way, few bands have moved me the way these guys have.

    x K

  4. Hey Katie, I think it's totally ok to move on from music (unless you feel you have to move on rather than wanting to - bugger that, that's why I still listen to a lot of shit so I maintain my eternal adolescence). To be honest, I don't think they've made a dud album yet and while some of it is similar, I've found something to enjoy on pretty every album. Perhaps you're right in that they're saying the same thing over and over but I think I like what they saying...