Artist Spotlight: Mogwai

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Pauli

Like many things prefixed by “post-,” “post-rock” is a confusing and infuriating label. Defining it is a similarly confusing exercise, though when pressed for examples, most people will include some subset of the bands Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, and today’s artist, Mogwai. These are all fairly different bands, but with them we can construct a loose definition from example. Post-rock employs traditional rock instrumentation – augmented and perhaps co-equal with electronic or orchestral elements – in the service of tones, atmospheres, and repetitive structures that are more characteristic of ambient and minimalist music. Though heavily and often exclusively instrumental, post-rock typically has very little interest in rock-style feats of strength – it’s hard to find a guitar solo in a post-rock song, in other words.

Are we clear on the definition of post-rock? Not at all? OK, let’s move on.

Over a career spanning two decades, Glasgow-based band Mogwai have evolved considerably, though their central motifs have largely remained the same. Originally dubbing themselves a band that made “serious guitar music,” the sound on their debut album Mogwai Young Team (1997) is certainly dominated by guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings’ alternately gorgeous and destructive tones, with Dominic Aitchison’s unusually melodic bass and Martin Bulloch’s steady drumming combining to make one of the most celebrated documents of post-rock. Opening track “Yes! I am a long way from home” is a serum of pure, slowly-building joy, putting all of Mogwai’s strengths on full display, with some whimsical spoken word elements to boot:

Second track “Like Herod” takes the soft-loud dynamic popularized by grunge (and, in a lesser-known way, by post-rock pioneers Slint – the song was almost named “Slint,” in fact) and distorts it further. A live staple, this is Mogwai in raw power mode; the obviousness of its dynamics does not make it any less awesome.

Elsewhere, the quiet “Tracy” is indicative of the more somber side of Mogwai that would, on balance, dominate most of their future recordings. Though even here, a mischievous sense of humor breaks through – the beginning and end of the track contain prank calls featuring members of the band:

Called by some a case of sophomore slump, Come On Die Young (1999) had high expectations that many critics felt the band didn’t meet. It is considerably more subdued than Mogwai Young Team – more “Tracy” than “Yes! I am a long way from home.” If you’re looking for Young Team‘s cacophony, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you’re OK with a more stripped-down, gloomy mix, this record delivers. The very-inappropriately-titled “May nothing but happiness come through your door” is, for my money, the most hauntingly minimalistic thing they’ve ever recorded. With little more than a barely-distorted guitar and some spare keyboard plunks – the latter courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns, who was brought in as a full-time member after collaborating on Young Team and who would significantly influence their sound going forward – it crafts a difficult-to-forget ode to quiet despair:

Come On Die Young also features what is a good candidate for the closest thing Mogwai has to a straightforward pop song, the sort-of title track “CODY.” It’s still plenty gloomy, of course, but it is striking for its slide guitar and the straightforwardness of its vocals:

Rock Action (2001) marked a bit of a sea change in their sound, with electronic elements featuring more prominently from this point forward. It’s a pretty experimental album overall, with many things thrown at the wall to see what will stick. “Dial: Revenge” has an acoustic guitar and Welsh vocals courtesy of Gruff Rhys of “Super Furry Animals:”

“Two wrongs make one right” has maybe the most ingredients of any single Mogwai song – synthesizers, vocoder, brass, and a goddamn banjo, among other things – and it adds up to something pretty special:

“Rock Action” is also the name of a record label Mogwai eventually formed in Glasgow, through which they would release their own records starting in 2010.

For me, the high water mark of Mogwai’s blending of rock and electronic elements was hit with 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People (at this point you should probably realize that with Mogwai, titles don’t mean much). They’re a bit more comfortable with the arsenal of new textures afforded by synthesizers here, and they create some beautifully gloomy oceans to get lost in. Opener “Hunted by a freak” is still very much a guitar song – John Cummings’ steady arpeggiation drives the track, with Stuart Braithwaite’s squalls heightening the chorus – but it all sounds like it’s about to drown under Barry Burns’ vocoder.

Elsewhere, as in “I know you are but what am I?,” the guitar is more of a tonal afterthought to spare keyboards that retain the same slowly-building obsession as their guitar work:

And, for a “classic” Mogwai experience, there’s the breathtaking rise and fall of “Ratts of the capital:”

2006’s Mr. Beast is not among my favorites, although it is a solid offering overall. The first three tracks – “Auto Rock,” “Glasgow Mega Snake,” and “Acid Food” provide a pretty good sampler of Mogwai’s range at this point – a piano-driven slow-riser, a straight-up metal crusher, and … an electronic hoe-down?

The Hawk is Howling (2008) is mostly a comfort food album – a band playing to their strengths, both old and relatively new, in a never-less-than-competent manner. “Thank You Space Expert” is one of my go-to sleepytime songs:

The ridiculously-titled-even-by-their-standards Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will (2011) is notably more upbeat, with some songs veering on krautrock. “Mexican Grand Prix” might actually get you to move around a little. Like, I dunno, bob your head slightly.

Their most recent full-length studio album is 2014’s Rave Tapes, which presents more stylistic shifts while still being quite recognizable as a Mogwai album. Standout track “Remurdered” sounds like a slightly beefier outtake from Tron:

Speaking of soundtracks, Mogwai have found a natural place in the world of TV and film scoring. Being largely wordless and obsessed with mood, the term “cinematic” is often used to describe post-rock, and Mogwai has latched onto that label in its later career. They have composed three full soundtracks – football documentary Zidane (2006), French supernatural TV drama Les Revenants (2013), and Atomic (2016), a companion soundtrack to the nuclear history documentary of the expanded name Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise. They also collaborated on the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), one of my favorite soundtracks of all time, with Aronofsky regulars Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet.

Zidane is more or less a straight-up Mogwai album. The Fountain is definitely recognizable for its Mogwai-ey bits – the crashing guitars that eventually find their way into “Death is the road to awe” are a dead giveaway:

The soundtrack to Les Revenants is lovely and haunting in a way that longtime Mogwai fans may not anticipate. Witness the short, sweet opening track “Hungry face:”

Atomic furthers the path into pure electronic territory, clearly taking inspiration from ’80s synthesizer soundtracks, though the crashing guitars are still there:

There you have it. Yes, we have come a long way from home.