Recent writing about Mogwai is pretty stultifying stuff. This is surprising considering the comparative diversity (metal to mainstream to indie) of the publications concerned. Much of it is simply hagiographical—which is fair enough, but it doesn’t make for very engaging reading—and nearly all of it reduces discussion of the band to questions surrounding the relative “heaviness” of the work at hand and to what degree it makes use of their iconic quiet/loud dynamics. Mention is made of the fact that Mogwai is very, very loud when performing live. Mention is made of precursors. My Bloody Valentine and Slint are the bands mentioned in this context, often as not. Metal magazines tend to drop a couple names of metal bands influenced by them, as if in justifying their presence to narrow-road-treading genrecists. And that’s about it. Mogwai, the armored band, mowing down audiences with their amplified machinery and reducing music writers to irresolute purveyors of watery advertisement.
Along with scads of past reviews and interviews, the promo pack for the Glaswegian’s latest, The Hawk is Howling, includes a testimony by Mogwai aficionado and crime writer, Ian Rankin. He begins by asserting the ludicrousness of writing about the group in the first place. “You shouldn’t even be reading this. It’s completely redundant. There are no lyrics on this album, so all the potency, texture and variation of moods comes from instruments alone. Mogwai paint pictures in sound; no words needed.”
Rankin, of course, continues.
But it seems to me a good enough place to start. Is writing about Mogwai so difficult because of the absence or near absence of words? Indeed, The Hawk is Howling is a wordless and unwieldy beast. As Rankin suggests, the band’s music is open to endless routs of interpretation. I would go further and say that it shouldn’t be interpreted at all. One should simply have experiences while listening to Mogwai, of the music and otherwise. The band has on numerous occasions pointed out that the titles are appended after the music has been made, without consideration of their appropriateness—often because of their inappropriateness. Words will get you nowhere with Mogwai.
I, of course, continue.
Comparing the value of one Mogwai album to the value of another is nearly as fruitless a task to set oneself as pursuing concrete interpretations of individual tracks. Theirs is a movement which continues always forward, unburdened by questions of representation—of people or ideas—and firmly resistant to summations which would arrest it in language. Yes, the albums can be compared via technical questions of form, but for me the worth of this is eviscerated by the fact that Mogwai’s work consistently resonates in the moment. It sets a listener’s mind in motion (forward, backward, up, down; consonant or parallel to actual events) at the same time that its visceral overtones situates his body exactly where it is. If you are listening to “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” and you are saying to yourself, “Yeah, pretty good, but not as good as Young Team,” or something to that extent, then you need to go ahead and turn the volume up. And if that doesn’t work, well, that’s a damn shame.
With 10 of its 12 tracks clocking in at more than five minutes, The Hawk is Howling is a sprawling, Technicolor affair. It’s got some raucous, spine-shattering moments (first single, “Batcat”, foremost among them), a heavy dose of brooding, more subdued than electrifying (“Scotland’s Shame” illustrates on both counts), and even an intermission of pristine levity (the excellent “The Sun Smells Too Loud”). It’s a Mogwai album. I don’t pretend to know how many of those you need in your life, but I can’t imagine that, given a reasonable amount of attentiveness on the part of the listener, any of them disappoint.