Culling autumnal chill from the verdant highlands of their native Scotland, Mogwai weaved epic instrumental strains through bruising guitar gauntlets on debut Young Team. Come On Die Young, the Glasgow band’s second album proper, proved a different kind of brooding beast. Its simmering peaks seethed often into soothing horizons of fragile beauty. Post-rock seems a paltry classification for such a dynamic sound (although usually they’re lumped into the genre). Music with this much movement veers closer to classical compositions than pop.
Already a record into their career (plus several singles and a compilation of material, Ten Rapid), Mogwai had begun to define their distinctive aesthetic—long drawn crescendos boiling over into awesome squall. While earlier releases featured moments of tenderness and relative calm (” Tracy,” “Summer”), Come On Die Young reintroduced the band as craftsmen of emotionally-affected guitar music that past efforts had merely suggested. Like similarly inclined Icelandic band Sigur Ros, Mogwai’s dynamism stretches far beyond the reach of simple descriptors—songs are still structured, but given more freedom to wander as far as possible from the confines of a simple chorus and verse.
Even slowcore crooner “Cody” (the only track on Come On to feature vocals, and hushed ones at that), defied traditional pop convention, its strummed guitars advancing at a steady glacial crawl. “Kappa” was the first indication that the band hadn’t fully forsaken their beginnings, a slightly sludgy rocker redolent of the bludgeoning force of Young Team‘s “Like Herod.” Ever concerned with tonality and subtle shifts that sway mood, Mogwai’s evolution equated primarily in expanding vast reaches of space and the subsequent restraint required to allow songs breathing room. If it at first sounds austere, you’re probably not listening closely enough. Music this deliberate takes time to supplant normal expectations.
Perhaps the prettiest song the band has ever recorded, “Waltz For Aidan” conjures its melancholic melody via honeyed guitars and delicate percussion. Later breakthrough Happy Songs For Happy People followed similar plans in constructing its electronically influenced sound, although it also adopted a darker shade. Mini-epics “Ex-Cowboy,” “Chocky,” and “Christmas Steps” close out the album at no less than nine minutes each, a reminder of Mogwai’s continued virility. Before I listened to Mogwai I never imagined it possible to be so moved by instrumental music. It didn’t take long for me to realize that words can detract as often as they add to a piece. After all what good is a clever line without the melody or, in the case of Mogwai, a slowly built tower of purifying sound?