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Mogwai: Scottish post-rockers still going strong

Twenty-five years later, the Scottish quartet has its mojo intact—and is readying its 10th studio album

The Mogwai at the Madcool Festival in July 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Getty Images
The Mogwai at the Madcool Festival in July 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Getty Images

Around the middle of February, Mogwai, the celebrated Scottish post-rock band, will release their 10th studio album, As The Love Continues. And a week earlier, they have announced, they will live-stream a performance premiere from Glasgow’s Tramway Theatre, offering fans an opportunity to listen to the album in full before its official release. Tickets to that online live performance, priced at £15 (around 1,500) each, are on sale now and Mogwai fans are excited. First, because in the post-covid gig-less era, it will be a chance to see their band play live, albeit in a virtual sort of way, and, second, the news that a new Mogwai album is on its way is a big deal. Because Mogwai are a very big deal.

A Glasgow-based quartet formed 25 years ago, Mogwai’s genre of music is usually labelled post-rock. But that’s a lazy way of describing the quartet’s musical style. Post-rock is a very broad genre; the term was coined in the early 1990s when both Britain and America saw the emergence of a breed of bands that were using the musical instruments conventionally used in rock music—such as guitars, bass or keyboards—differently. For example, instead of lead guitar riffs or chords, they played them by exploring their sound quality and volume and density of tones. A particular motif would be played repeatedly with just minor changes as it went along. Instead of the conventional structures of melodies and harmonies that are adopted for songs in rock music, post-rock bands often create a panoramic soundscape. It helps that much of their music is instrumental.

Among the pioneers of post-rock were bands such as Britain’s Talk Talk, America’s Slint and, of course, Mogwai. The Scottish ensemble is a bit unique because it has stood the test of time. Nine studio albums (and several live albums, EPs and compilations) later, they still manage to keep evolving, experimenting with their soundscape, employing synths and electronic equipment innovatively. And most of all, they keep enthralling their growing tribe of fans across the world.

Mogwai’s brand of spacey music has its own trademark sound. The quartet—Stuart Braithwaite, Barry Burns, Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch—often uses as many as three guitars to create music that can evolve from being tranquil, lo-fi and brooding to high-energy and nerve-rackingly heavy. Mogwai deploy vocals sparingly but when they do (Braithwaite and Burns share duties), the vocals are used as the instruments are—for their sound quality, timbre and tone, not for the lyrics they sing. Quite like another famous post-rock band, Iceland’s Sigur Rós, whose lead singer, Jónsi, sings in a made-up language, Hopelandic, which has no semantic meaning.

For many listeners who have grown to like Mogwai’s music, it all began with one of their most popular tracks, Take Me Somewhere Nice. The brooding song is one of the few by Mogwai with discernible lyrics (Ghosts in the photograph/ Never lie’d to me/ I’d be all of that/ I’d be all of that/ A false memory/ Would be everything/ A denial my eliminent/ What was that for?/ What was that for?) and has been interpreted to be about the otherworldly illusion that mist emissions from chemical plants in Glasgow create with the ambient light. That track is from Mogwai’s 2001 album Rock Action, which could be the band’s most accessible album—and one of those that can be a starter for those uninitiated into their music.

It is difficult to recommend the best among Mogwai’s nine albums. They experiment relentlessly and, although their core style remains the same (guitar sounds reign supreme in the soundscape), every album marks a significant evolution from the one before it. In addition, Mogwai have done soundtracks for seven movies and TV series. Not surprising considering that Mogwai’s soundscapes often have a distinctively cinematic quality. Their most recent soundtrack work is the one they did for ZeroZeroZero, the Italian crime drama TV series that is streamed on Amazon Prime.

But for exploring some of Mogwai’s best works, one of their earliest albums, 1997’s Young Team, could be perfect. It’s their first full-length album and the 10 tracks on it are like one long, intricately woven tapestry of sound, shifting, segueing, and changing the mood in the most satisfying way. It provides a peek at what the band would do relentlessly, over more than two decades. It’s difficult not to be hooked to Mogwai after listening to Young Team. Then, it becomes easy. Pick any of their subsequent albums and you are unlikely to be disappointed.

But still, here are a couple of First Beat’s favourites: the tranquil Happy Songs For Happy People (2003), and the experimental and drone-y Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011). And if you want to virtually capture the mood at a Mogwai gig, watch Mogwai-Live 2019, a gig whose full set is on YouTube (note also that the touring drummer is Cat Myers, a freelance sessions musician). Mogwai live are so captivating that you will likely find yourself swaying with the audience.

And while we wait for the live-stream and release of Mogwai’s 10th album, a single from that album is already out. It’s called Dry Fantasy. Discerning fans will notice that the track is driven less by guitars than by synths. Does that mean the new album, As The Love Continues, will be yet another direction change for the band? We have to wait till February to find out.

The Lounge list of five tracks by Mogwai to bookend your week

1. Take Me Somewhere Nice from Rock Action

2. Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home from Young Team

3. Dry Fantasy from As The Love Continues

4. Radar Maker from Young Team

5. Mexican Grand Prix from Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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