Whether you consider the birth of post-rock to have happened in the UK with bands like Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis, or back in the United States with the likes of Slint, the genre has existed long enough to have surpassed its point of novelty or innovation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of bands making something interesting of a now decades-old concept; Grails, Slaraffenland, Red Sparowes and Under Byen are just a handful of acts that continue to challenge listeners with atypical dynamics and blurred genre lines. Yet as with any other style that’s been tossed around for 20 years or longer, ultimately a formula comes to dominate, in this case the over-reliance on moody instrumentals, soft/loud dynamics, the occasional downtempo or glitch indulgence or shoegazer slo-mo. Whereas little of it is offensive on an aesthetic level, much of what passes for “post-rock” circa 2011 is faceless and forgettable.
Scotland’s Mogwai, one of post-rock’s biggest names and pioneering acts, isn’t immune from falling back on safer, tried-and-true methods as they age and progress. Yet the band is rarely boring. A friend of mine once remarked that their third album, Rock Action, had neither enough “rock” nor “action,” but with Mogwai, the payoff is never in the immediate thrill but the build and the climax. That slow, deliberate and haunting sonic approach is precisely what made first album Young Team the revelation that it was, particularly on harrowing epic tracks such as “Like Herod.” That kind of heart-racing drama and jarring array of compositional suspense hasn’t been as potent on the band’s last two albums, Mr. Beast and The Hawk Is Howling, but each nonetheless revealed the band’s flexibility and subtle shifts and dynamic over time.
Mogwai’s first album for Sub Pop, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, likewise isn’t a headfirst leap into uncharted territory. It’s the type of album that only Mogwai could create, but more importantly, it’s the type of album that only the likes of Mogwai can really do well. Settled comfortably between the more expansive The Hawk Is Howling and the comparatively concise Mr. Beast, Hardcore is neither overlong nor too slight. Some of it may seem familiar, from the delay-heavy opening guitar euphoria of “White Noise,” to the cinematically weeping “Letters to the Metro,” and the heroic progression of “How to Be A Werewolf.” Add to that the non-sequitur humor in titles like “You’re Lionel Richie” and the career-standard average of two tracks with vocals, and champ, you’ve got a Mogwai album.
Despite the familiarity of the ingredients, Hardcore Will Never Die nonetheless represents one important evolution the band has made since 1997, notably their escalation toward immediacy. “Immediate” is probably not the first word one would use to describe the band’s first few albums, but few of the songs on Hardcore Will Never Die are as demanding as something like “Mogwai Fear Satan” or “Xmas Steps.” Droning, sputtering krautrock-influenced single “Mexican Grand Prix,” for instance, combines the motorik pulse of Neu! with the dark abrasion of Joy Division and electronic vocal effects in a haunting and quite cool experiment in pop arrangement. The soaring three-minute post-punk of “San Pedro” has all the makings of a stellar alternative radio single, save for being an instrumental. Yet, “George Thatcher Death Squad,” the other song with vocals, is built for stadium grandeur, akin to Sonic Youth and Daft Punk hijacking one of U2’s rockers.
Indeed, there are very few of the churning slow-burners from Mogwai albums past, the notable exception being the immense closer “You’re Lionel Richie” (apparently named for an actual sentence spoken by one of the band’s members to Lionel Richie). Delicately plodding and chiming with precision and deliberation, the song nonetheless reaches the kind of majestic climax that Mogwai has been delivering for more than a decade and a half. That it’s a rare exception on an album of shorter, catchier tunes offers less opportunity to wear out its welcome. Perhaps it’s a bit misleading to call Hardcore Will Never Die a “pop” album, but along with Mr. Beast it’s also the closest the band has ever come. For a band who made a name for themselves by doing away with traditional rock structures, this impressive array of hooks suits Mogwai surprisingly well.
Video: Mogwai: “Mexican Grand Prix”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.