Following the recent passing of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, I found myself tracking down countless memorials for MCA. They varied from superb (Passion of the Weiss, Grantland, this MetaFilter post) to bizarrely off-point (Washington Times) to economic and incisive (a friend’s “He was ill for a very long time”), but the general narrative of Yauch’s life was consistent: he transitioned from wild-and-crazy youth to socially conscious adult without losing his fan base, which was no minor achievement.
Yet I’m not here to relive and relay years of listening experience, because in comparison to the cited retrospectives, I simply didn’t log the hours. I was a dabbler, plain and simple. I remember being energized by their live-instruments performance of “Sabotage” at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards, but if there’s stereotypical indication of my default setting as a guitar rockist, that’s it. When they had a video on MTV, I’d gladly watch it, when my friends put on one of their albums in high school, I enjoyed it (at least until I heard “Intergalactic” for the eight-millionth time in the summer of ’98), when they made a heads-only guest appearance on Futurama, I laughed. But to qualify myself as a true-blood fan—one of the people who poured over issues of Grand Royal magazine—would be disingenuous.
Instead, I’m here because those memorials prodded my lingering curiosity over the group’s full discography—something that’s been festering for years—over the edge. In addition to my excitement to spend time with Paul’s Boutique, I have plenty of questions. What kept me from digging deeper earlier? Did they really start out as a hardcore band? Does License to Ill hold any appeal for a 31-year-old dad? Will I recognize the countless samples? Could I reflexively recite “Intergalactic”? Are their late-career records under-appreciated?
To find out, I’ll cover their eight full-length releases and the key singles/EPs from their thirty-year run.
Polly Wog Stew EP, Rat Cage, 1982
Highlights: “Egg Raid on Mojo”
Lowlights: The possibility of hearing it twice
Yes, the Beastie Boys began as a hardcore band. It’s fun to imagine other ’80s hip-hop notables arriving with equally bizarre musical origin stories: Eric B. and Rakim starting out as a jazz-fusion duo; Kool Keith housing things as a synth-pop troubadour; Salt-N-Pepa authoring chipper Go-Go’s-esque power pop; Biz Markie bringing the laughs with “Weird Al” Yankovic-style parodies. But whereas the transition from Point A to Point B for those hypothetical scenarios would mimic the slipshod plotting of a direct-to-video action flick, there’s a logical arc between the Beasties’ earliest days as NYC hardcore punks and their coming of age (sort of) as beer-swilling MCs on License to Ill.
The seeds of the Beastie Boys were planted in 1981 with Michael Diamond’s involvement in The Young Aborigines, a four-piece described as “experimental” and supposedly influenced by Siouxsie & the Banshees and Joy Division. (Either these were the hippest fourteen-year-olds in existence, prior to Spencer Tweedy of course, or both points are complete bullshit. Not knowing how to write or perform songs does not mean you’re experimental; wandering through a murky outro does not mean you’re post-punk.) Mercifully for my ears, there’s no official document of those songs, although rehearsal tapes, a live recording, and a failed studio session exist. The group’s default lineup was Diamond on drums, Kate Schellenbach on percussion, John Berry on guitar, and Jeremy Shatan on bass, but the members switched instruments for one song called “Asshole,” with Diamond singing and Schellenbach drumming. When Shatan left NYC for the summer of 1981, the three other members indulged their hardcore leanings and that alternate line-up as the Beastie Boys. Adam Yauch replaced the hardcore-averse Shatan on bass and the earliest incarnation of the Beastie Boys—the one documented on Polly Wog Stew—was solidified.
The Beastie Boys played their first show on August 5, 1981, Adam Yauch’s seventeenth birthday. Michael Diamond and Kate Schellenbach were still fifteen. Unlike later gigs at name venues like Max’s Kansas City, Irving Plaza, and CBGB’s, this show occurred at John Berry’s house, presumably his parents’ house. I stress the members’ ages and the show’s location for a reason: Polly Wog Stew is the music of teenagers.
A spin of Polly Wog Stew whopping eleven-minute runtime reveals the following subjects: jumping turnstiles, fondness for Batman and Crass, not fighting on Friday night, smoking pot vs. being straight-edge, hating farms, throwing eggs. It’s delivered with at top speed (excluding the two drifting, faux-experimental passages in “Jimi” and “Ode to…”) with Diamond’s snotty yelp leading the way. Praising a group’s “youthful energy” is a gentle way to imply that the musicianship is sloppy, and on that tip, the Beastie Boys had a lot of youthful energy. “Egg Raid on Mojo” is the highlight, but unless you’re a Beastie Boys super-fan or a historian of early ’80s NYC hardcore, one spin of Polly Wog Stew will be more than enough.
Then again, I don’t currently qualify as either of those things. I prefer post-punk to punk, post-hardcore to hardcore. Both punk and hardcore can be viewed as ends to themselves or gateways to something new. You can master the tenets of punk (thereby leveling up to “punk as fuck”), you can play harder and faster hardcore, but once you perfect the formula of either, you’re steadfastly avoiding change as the aforementioned “youthful energy” runs out and you turn a decrepit 22. On the other side, you can recognize the need to evolve, not merely refine, and incorporate elements outside of the defined parameters of the genre. In the latter scenario, Ian MacKaye forms Embrace and then Fugazi, J. Robbins begins Jawbox, and Drive Like Jehu issues Yank Crime. No, I’m not biased at all to one side of the ledger.
The gradual process for those artists of going from point A to point B, Minor Threat to Fugazi, often involves the following steps: slow down, find new and possibly better collaborators, identify what’s important to your music to begin with (social/political awareness), grow up as individuals and as writers (no more “Guilty of Being White”), expand your influences (reggae). Applying that to the Beastie Boys, they slowed down enough that you could understand what Michael Diamond was saying, brought Adam Horowitz on board in 1983 and left Schellenbach behind in 1984, extracted the prankster appeal of “Egg Raid on Mojo,”
matured got laid, and jumped on the growing hip-hop trend. Abandoning hardcore made too much sense from both commercial and creative perspectives, but as Check Your Head, Ill Communication, and especially the Aglio e Olio EP prove, they didn’t leave it completely behind.
The video evidence of the Beasties’ hardcore days—a 1984 cable access spot with Adam Horowitz on guitar—is more enjoyable than the EP. There’s also an eighteen-minute program on The Young Aborigines / The Beastie Boys with interviews from John Berry and Jeremy Shatan. The latter includes snippets of some YA music, so proceed with caution.
Cooky Puss EP, Rat Cage, 1983
Highlights: “Cooky Puss”
Lowlights: “Beastie Revolution”
“Cooky Puss” was the Beastie Boys’ first hip-hop song, or, less generously, first hip-hop skit. Their last release as a four-piece, “Cooky Puss” lays prank calls to Carvel Ice Cream over turntable scratches, Steve Martin samples, and live bass and drums. Its success in NYC dance clubs encouraged the Beastie Boys to continue in this direction and a settlement over British Airways’ illegal use (imagine that) of “Beastie Revolution” funded the time and space to improve their act.
Although “Cooky Puss” remains a semi-amusing lark, the EP longs for more ballast. After the title track, there’s “Bonus Batter,” an instrumental extension of “Cooky Puss,” “Beastie Revolution,” an initially amusing but ultimately interminable piss-take on reggae, and a censored version of “Cooky Puss.” It was later bundled with Polly Wog Stew as Some Old Bullshit, a remarkably apt title.
Most importantly, it’s time to say adios to Kate Schellenbach. The sample-oriented Cooky Puss wrote her departure on the wall, and after going away for a weekend in 1984, she returned to find her bandmates wearing matching track suits and chilling with new cohort Rick Rubin. In essence, the female drummer was replaced by a giant inflatable penis. To their credit, the Beastie Boys did sign Luscious Jackson (the ’90s alt-rock group containing Schellenbach and “Holy Snappers” name-drop Jill Cuniff) to their Grand Royal imprint in 1992.
Rock Hard EP, Def Jam, 1985
Highlights: Ad-Rock's verse in “Beastie Groove”
Low Points: "Party's Getting Rough"
Cooky Puss pushed the Beastie Boys most of the way toward Def Jam hip-hop, but Rock Hard is the first full embrace. Three MCs bobbing and weaving through verses, exhibiting no small debt to fellow Rubinites Run-D.M.C.? Check. Up-front drum machine beats? Check. Sampled guitar riffs? Check. Turntable scratching? Check. The pieces are in place, but the execution needs some practice.
The title track’s use of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” caused the initial release to be recalled and prevented a reissue for 22 years, when it was finally repressed in Europe. Mike D. said that “AC/DC could not get with the sample concept” but there’s nothing subtle or ingenious about the use of that song’s instantly recognizable guitar riff here. First, it’s not part of the guitar riff, it’s the entire verse. Second, aside from the presence of three guys rapping over it, there’s no contrasting element. Replacing the drums with rudimentary 808 beats makes little difference. Licensed to Ill isn’t particularly coy about its samples; opening track “Rhymin & Stealin” is appropriately titled, but at least there are three sources on that song. “Rock Hard” is that riff, over and over again.
I realize that harping on a 1985 hip-hop record’s production values as being limited is an obvious, tired argument, but keep “Rock Hard” in mind as a starting place. It establishes the path of least resistance (or perhaps effort) to Licensed to Ill’s “loud guitars and drum machines” success and later the actual recontextualization of samples on Paul’s Boutique. But as-is in 2012, “Rock Hard” sounds like a mash-up, something that should be tiresome to anyone who read a music blog from 2000-2005.
As for the rapping on “Rock Hard,” it’s also a work in progress, to put it gently. If not for MCA’s gruffer delivery, it would be difficult to tell the three MCs apart. Lyrically the theme is “We’re here and we’re great,” which occasionally stumbles onto a worthwhile nugget like “Like claps of thunder from the cumulus clouds” but mostly offers eye-rollers like “Sometimes I write rhythms rather write rhymes / He writes his and I write mine” when put in print.
The two other real tracks on the EP further their pre-Licensed to Ill development. “Party’s Getting Rough” is looser, to say the least: a six-minute hip-hop jam ambling between “[Insert Name] has got the groove!” shout-outs, a mid-song skit about the Beastie Boys’ taking over the song’s production (get this, they make the drums louder), and an extended, scratch-heavy outro. Much like “Beastie Revolution,” it’s initially appealing but quickly wears thin. “Beastie Groove” gives each MC some breathing room, with MCA taking the lead, Ad-Rock showing off with a speedy passage, and Mike D. pulling up the rear, literally and figuratively. Ad-Rock’s verse prefaces the sexed-up focus of Licensed to Ill with “Cause I'm a man who needs no introduction / Got a big tool of reproduction.” Like everything else on Rock Hard, it’s a dry run.
As per mid-’80s regulations, an instrumental mix of “Beastie Groove” closes out the EP, offering you a chance to better Mike D.’s insightful “Take that if you think you can / Meet the floor and that to this here rap” couplet.
A better pre-Licensed to Ill track appears on the soundtrack to the 1985 Def Jam feature film Krush Groove. “She’s On It” draws a much clearer blueprint for the album: less obviously canned guitar riffs, more obvious sexual innuendo, and sparse verses. In addition to roughly 200 white girls running around in bikinis, the video shows Rick Rubin “producing” the Boys' Looney Tunes hijinks and underscores just how damned young Ad-Rock was in 1985.
This post of rankings and ephemera wraps up Mogwai Discographied. If you’re wondering “What is Mogwai Discographied?” it’s a deep dive into the catalog of one of the foremost purveyors of post-rock. Consult the first nine parts of the series for the gory details: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Each post tackles two or three entries in Mogwai’s catalog. If you’re not interested in reading 16,000+ words on Mogwai to figure out a starting point, the following list should help.
I’ve ranked these albums/compilations with two considerations in mind: personal preference and best starting points. I’ve excluded lesser releases (singles and remix albums), and bundled the 4 Satin, No Future = No Education (Fuck the Curfew) and Mogwai EPs under EP+6, since that’s the most cost effective way to acquire those releases. Everything on this list is worth hearing at some point, but if you learn a single lesson from Mogwai Discographied, it’s that you should pace yourself when consuming Mogwai releases. Start with the top four, then progress down the list as your appetites allow.
- Young Team: Mogwai’s first full-length features towering highs (“Mogwai Fear Satan,” “Like Herod”), glorious guitar tones, and powerful dynamic range.
- Special Moves: A long-overdue live album for fans and a sampler platter for newcomers that excels in both departments. Get a version with the Burning concert DVD included.
- EP+6: This must-have three-EP compilation offers brass bliss (“Burn Girl Prom Queen”), fuzzed-out crescendos (“Small Children in the Background”), unrelenting noise (“Stereodee”), and whirring beauty (“Stanley Kubrick”).
- Rock Action: Mogwai’s shortest LP does not lack inspiration, loaded with fruitful forays into electronic (“Sine Wave”), folk (“Dial: Revenge”), and symphonic impulses (“2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”).
- Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003: This compilation offers alternate views of known songs, a few of which (“Secret Pint,” “Like Herod”) are definitive versions.
- Ten Rapid: Collected Recordings 1996-1997: This compilation of Mogwai’s early singles exhibits their innate melodic touch and a greater reliance on open spaces.
- The Hawk Is Howling: Achieves length without excessive sprawl, in large part because of its exceptional last four songs.
- Mr. Beast: A 40-minute block of well-crafted songs (like the riff-machine “Glasgow Mega-snake”) that lacks the evocative mystery of Mogwai’s best works.
- Come on Die Young: A handful of extraordinary tracks (especially the slow-core ballad “Cody”) are brought down by an exhausting mid-tempo stretch.
- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will: Their newest album shows off a few new tricks (the motorik drive of “Mexican Grand Prix,” the ambient companion piece “Music for a Forgotten Future”), but mostly sticks to known terrain.
- Happy Songs for Happy People: This mostly subdued collection of songs never hits Mogwai’s top gear, but does provide some worthy additions to their catalog.
- Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: A calming, if repetitive soundtrack that shows off Mogwai’s quiet side.
I’ve covered all of the key Mogwai releases in detail, but there’s plenty more to track down for the tireless completist. This list is not comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point for that journey.
“Sweet Leaf”: Mogwai reveal their fondness for Black Sabbath with this cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” which appeared on a split single with Magoo in 1998. Not their best vocal performance, but you can hear the influence of those slow, heavy riffs in countless Mogwai songs.
“Hugh Dallas”: Mogwai’s contribution to the Everything Is Nice 3CD compilation for Matador’s 15th anniversary is a haunting nine minutes of slow-core. Drifting along on Stuart Braithwaite’s hushed vocals and gentle strumming until the guitars crash down, “Hugh Dallas” is a lo-fi companion to Ten Rapid’s vocal tracks. Well worth hunting down.
Split 10” with Bardo Pond: Two pleasantly mellow songs from a limited-edition tour EP. “D to E” drifts semi-aimlessly with its blurred guitar, keys, and trumpet. “Drum Machine,” a collaboration with The Remote Viewer, offers a subaquatic companion piece, with the titular element bumping quietly beneath the surface. These songs reappeared on Mogwai’s 2001 UK Tour Single. Neither is easy to find.
Japanese bonus tracks: Heeding to the tradition of adding bonus tracks to the Japanese pressings of their albums so consumers don’t just import the American versions, many Mogwai albums have received additional material abroad. Rock Action received two bonus tracks: “Untitled” is a longer take of “D to E,” while “Close Encounters,” a collaboration with David Pajo, is one of Mogwai’s mid-tempo, crescendo-free meditations. Happy Songs for Happy People offers “Sad DC,” which emphasizes Luke Sutherland’s mournful violin. The Hawk Is Howling has “Dracula Family,” an upbeat instrumental that would’ve made a nice b-side for “The Sun Smells Too Loud.” (This song also appeared on a Rock Action sampler.) Collect these songs and you’ll have a pleasant, if inessential EP of bonus material.
The Fountain soundtrack: Clint Mansell scored Darren Aronofsky’s ponderous 2006 sci-fi romance, recruiting the Kronos Quarter and Mogwai to perform it. Mogwai presumably contributes guitar arpeggios, foreboding textures, and drumming to “Holy Dread,” “Stay with Me,” and album/film centerpiece “Death Is the Road to Awe”—just don’t expect to proclaim “A lost Mogwai song!” The soundtrack holds up reasonably well without the film, but context won’t hurt. The Fountain tends to be a love/hate proposition, but I’m somewhere in the middle, enamored with the cinematography, set design, and boundless ambition, but aware of its repetitive structure, muddy thematic arcs, and the danger of such boundless ambition.
“Gouge Away”: Mogwai contributed a noisy and accented cover of the Doolittle favorite to the 2007 Dig for Fire: A Tribute to the Pixies compilation. It’s not astoundingly great, but it’s still a thousand times better than The Promise Ring’s line reading of the song for the prior Where Is My Mind? tribute (from which I recommend The Get-Up Kids’ energetic rendition of “Alec Eiffel”).
Fuck Buttons Split Single: Mogwai and Fuck Buttons toured together in 2008, releasing this split EP for the occasion and then issuing it on vinyl for Record Store Day 2010 in the UK. Mogwai contribute an excellent remix of Fuck Buttons’ “Colours Move” from their 2008 debut LP Street Horrrsing, while Fuck Buttons add buzzing synths and tribal drumming to their cover of “Mogwai Fear Satan.” Both songs are worth checking out, as is Fuck Buttons’ superb 2009 LP Tarot Sport, which picks up that “Mogwai Fear Satan” thread within their own aesthetic.
Hardcore singles: Mogwai’s newest album has garnered two singles: one domestic, one import. The Sub Pop single for “Rano Pano” offers “Hasenheide” on the flip, a charging, drum-driven rocker that carries a bit more emotional weight than its sonic counterpart on the album, “San Pedro.” The Rock Action single for “Mexican Grand Prix” features sleeve design reminiscent of Mogwai’s earliest singles and the b-side “Slight Domestic.” It’s a carefully crafted mid-tempo instrument midway between “Death Rays” and “Letters to the Metro.” I don't know where or how they'd fit on Hardcore, but arguments could be made for their inclusion.
Remixes: In addition to having their own songs remixed, Mogwai has returned the favor on a number of occasions. Here are some notable ones:
- David Holmes’ “Don’t Die Just Yet”: Most notable for pulling the rhythm section from Slint’s “Good Morning, Captain,” this remix also offers a climax of distorted guitar. Fellow Scots Arab Strap also remixed this song.
- The Paradise Motel’s “Drive”: The original version of The Paradise Motel’s cover of The Cars’ classic single features tasteful strings and reserved female vocals, but Mogwai’s reworking is a brilliant bit of ambient drone with garbled vocals.
- Bloc Party’s “Plans”: They retain most of the rolling rhythms of the original, but slice up the vocals and exchange the rousing guitar melodies for squelched-out electronics. Mogwai also remixed “Biko” from Intimacy, but my patience for Bloc Party wore thin after Silent Alarm.
- The Twilight Sad’s “The Room”: Mogwai take the yearning ballad from Forget the Night Ahead and add fuzzed-out guitar textures and a tinny drum machines. “The Wrong Car” alone is worth the price of its 12", so consider this track a major bonus.
- Errors’ “Supertribe”: Mogwai pay Errors back for their excellent version of “Auto-Rock” with a darker, more club-friendly take for Celebrity Come Down with Me that excises the insistent synth melody of the original for some morse code bleeps.
I’m currently determining the subject of the next round of Discographied, but I can tell you one thing: it will not be a contemporary post-rock band.
Welcome to the last official part of Mogwai Discographied. This entry covers their two newest releases: the 2011 album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will and the accompanying Home Demos EP. If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King, part six covers Happy Songs for Happy People and Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003, part seven covers Mr. Beast, the singles for Friend of the Night, and Travel Is Dangerous, and the soundtrack for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, and part eight covers The Hawk Is Howling, the Batcat EP, and their live album Special Moves. Next time I'll wrap things up with album rankings and ephemera.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will – Sub Pop, 2011
Highlights: “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” “Mexican Grand Prix,” “How to Be a Werewolf,” “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)”
Low Points: “Rano Pano,” “White Noise”
Overall: Want to know why it’s so difficult to write about every Mogwai release? They’re too consistent. My least favorite of their full-lengths to date (Come on Die Young and Happy Songs for Happy People) are still good records in the grand scheme of things. Put those records against other post-rock records released in 1999 and 2003 and they’ll hold their own. Upon release, I’ve spun each Mogwai album countless times. They’re approachable, solid records. Barring unreasonable hype or the endless hope for a new “Mogwai Fear Satan,” you know what to expect and you get it.
In a large enough sample set, however, such predictability is exhausting. Aside from Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, I can’t cite a single Mogwai release with a disastrous turn. The best I can do is nitpick: Come on Die Young drags in the middle; Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast lack transcendent highlights; Zidane is repetitive; “The Sun Smells Too Loud” doesn’t fit The Hawk Is Howling’s mood. Nitpicking is tedious. But that’s what you can do with a body of work that offers a consistent return by taking few risks.
I was spoiled, in a weird way, by the risks taken by Discographied’s first subject, Sonic Youth. Say what you will about NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but it’s not a retread of A Thousand Leaves. I didn’t care for The Eternal, but damned if it’s not a 180 from Rather Ripped. Each Sonic Youth record changed my perception of the group. I may have hated particular songs or releases, but they each offered something new to hear and write about.
Mogwai’s changed from album to album, but it’s never been drastic. They take measured risks—an increased reliance on electronics here, shorter song structures there—but nothing that threatens their core identity. They play it safe, bolstering their repertoire with more album highlights to add to their live set (not to mention 2018’s The Specialist Moves). Part of me itches for a NYC Ghosts & Flowers left-turn, whatever that might be. A Mogwai punk album. A Mogwai ambient album. A Mogwai stoner metal album. Doing something on a lark, even an EP of “Travel Is Dangerous”-style rock songs, would be greatly appreciated, even if it fails. Then they could go back to being Mogwai, that branded entity of rock-post-rock, and I’ll hear it with fresh ears.
Whether you have fresh ears will likely determine your enthusiasm for the superbly titled Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Aside from one lengthy bonus track, it offers a few minor surprises, but is essentially a reassurance that Mogwai is good at being Mogwai. As a whole, it’s a hybrid of their last three albums, pulling Happy Songs’ electronic vocals, Mr. Beast’s concise rockers, and The Hawk Is Howling’s sense of space.
I was initially taken by the songs that deviated from the usual approach, most of which appear at the beginning of the album. Opener “White Noise” is a cosmopolitan update of “Auto-Rock,” bright colors and chipper melodies piloting its gradual ascent, but the song’s construction is the new touch. Much like Polvo’s “Beggar’s Bowl,” the foundational guitar loop in “White Noise” remains even as more layers are piled on. The Neu!-aping click track and programmed beat of “Mexican Grand Prix” signals a foray into Krautrock, but Luke Sutherland’s (of Long Fin Killie) hushed vocals overtake the digitized voices as Martin Bulloch kicks the song into gear. The fuzzed-out melody of “Rano Pano” feels like a different band (Mogwai favorites Bardo Pond?), but the new texture is welcome. Skipping to the middle of the album, “George Square Thatcher Death Party” is an up-tempo, bass-driven rock song with vocals cloaked by vocoder.
The rest of Hardcore is more familiar. “Death Rays” is a mid-tempo, piano-led track akin to a few songs on The Hawk Is Howling. Its buzzing riff hits a higher gear than “Daphne and the Brain,” but it occupies a similar space. “San Pedro” is a menacing, locked-in instrumental like “Glasgow Mega-Snake” or “Batcat.” With its brushed drumming and pedal steel, “Letters to the Metro” is a lilting throwback to the Come on Die Young and Mogwai EP. “How to Be a Werewolf” is filled with positive, surging melodies, like “The Sun Smells Too Loud” done right. The final two tracks, “Raging to Cheers” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” restructure the dynamic rockers found on Hawk by starting with head-fakes at Mogwai’s quiet reserve mode, but sure enough, each song hits its peak with a mammoth, cathartic riff.
Like every Mogwai album before it, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has spent considerable time on my turntable. During that time, my initial fondness for the “new” Mogwai songs dissipated, while my appreciation for the tried-and-true Mogwai songs increased. I like the approach of “White Noise,” but it lacks the heart of their best openers. I enjoy the fuzzed-out guitar texture of “Rano Pano,” but I’m absolutely sick of its sing-song melody. “George Square Thatcher” probably rules in concert, but it lacks staying power on record. “Mexican Grand Prix” holds up the best of those, thanks in large part to Sutherland’s vocals. (Perhaps he can front that EP of Mogwai rock songs.) In contrast, “San Pedro,” “Letters to the Metro,” “How to Be a Werewolf,” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie” have emerged as highlights. They fit existing templates from Mogwai’s catalog, but damned if they don’t hit the spot. Along with "Mexican Grand Prix," those are the songs I’d like to hear on The Specialist Moves.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’s biggest risk comes on a bonus track, available on the 2CD edition and as a download with the vinyl. “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)” is Mogwai’s soundtrack for an art installation, a 23-minute-long piece which forgoes percussion for most of its runtime in favor of ruminating guitar feedback, music box chimes, muted keys, and solemn violin. Brainwashed calls it the best thing Mogwai’s ever done, which is an overstatement, but I’m pleased by Mogwai’s willingness to step out of their comfort zone. The melodic and tonal shift approximately twelve minutes in and the string coda are each impressive moves, more reminiscent of Stars of the Lid than the rest of Hardcore.
It’s a shame “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)” is a footnote for Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will rather than an integral piece. There’s nothing wrong with Hardcore—it offers the same mix of styles as their last four full-lengths—but its position within Mogwai’s catalog is defined by its relation to those other titles. If you want more Mogwai, here’s more Mogwai. Guess what? The best songs are stereotypically Mogwai. But “Music for a Forgotten Future” hints at something else, a tantalizing proposition after listening to the group’s entire catalog over the past months and getting a concrete sense of Mogwai’s core identity. It’s time to take chances and expand that identity.
Home Demos – Rock Action, 2011
Highlights: “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” “How to Be a Werewolf”
Low Points: “San Pedro”
I’ve mentioned alternate takes again and again in Mogwai Discographied, preferring earlier versions of “Xmas Steps,” “Helps Both Ways,” and “My Father My King,” but none of those tracks qualify as home demos. That distinction makes this EP—an additional 12” included with the limited-edition box set for Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will—a unique (if expensive) look into Mogwai’s creative process.
Most of Mogwai’s typical artifice is stripped away here. A drum machine fills in for Martin Bulloch. The tracks mostly lack the biting and beautiful guitar tones of Mogwai’s full-lengths. Mogwai’s thrived on craft since Come on Die Young, so hearing their music without the usual polish is disarming.
Home Demos offers early versions of five of Hardcore’s tracks. “Mexican Grand Prix” is significantly different, going exclusively electronic in its embryonic version. The album version initially sounded like a dramatic change of pace for Mogwai, a Neu! homage that twists Luke Sutherland’s breathy vocal underneath his digitized counterparts, but in comparison to this demo it sounds a thousand times more like a Mogwai Song TM. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” sounds like a demo, trading the album version’s muscular rhythms for some lo-fi drum machines. “San Pedro” follows suit, a simple drum beat plugging away as a tinny rendition of the album version’s guitars run through the same motions. “How to Be a Werewolf” benefits from more open space, its clean guitars coming much closer to Mogwai’s standard palette. It never blooms into triumphant hues, but its restraint is pleasant company. “You’re Lionel Ritchie” puts away the drum machine, letting the guitar interplay stand alone without percussion. The full crush of distortion never arrives, but the intimacy is appreciated.
Here’s the takeaway on Mogwai’s creative process from Home Demos. First, Martin Bulloch’s absence from the demo stage limits his flexibility in the finished product. He doesn’t cut loose in the Hardcore version of “San Pedro” because the song is written upon a drum machine pattern, not his playing. Second, Mogwai is capable of a purely electronic song like “Mexican Grand Prix”—and that song and “George Square Thatcher” didn’t start with clean vocals. Finally, Mogwai’s best melodies come from two or three members writing complimentary pieces in a single room, as shown on “How to Be a Werewolf” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie.” If only these mostly obvious points came a bit cheaper.
If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King, part six covers Happy Songs for Happy People and Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003, and part seven covers Mr. Beast, the singles for Friend of the Night and Travel Is Dangerous, and the soundtrack for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. This time I tackle the pleasant surprise of 2008's The Hawk Is Howling, the Batcat EP, and their exceptional 2010 live album Special Moves
The Hawk Is Howling – Matador, 2008
Highlights: “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School,” “Scotland’s Shame,” “The Precipice”
Low Points: “Daphne and the Brain,” “The Sun Smells Too Loud”
Overall: Like every Mogwai album since Rock Action, the response to The Hawk Is Howling was mixed. Pitchfork slammed it with a 4.5. NME doubled that score with a 9/10. Dusted calls it “subtle, but very much worth exploring,” which is an improvement from their takedown on Mr. Beast. The arm-wrestling competition between “a return to form” and “no, not more of this form” came to a standstill. There was one crucial detail to all of this waffling, however, and that was the repeated comparison to Young Team.
This comparison came easily, given the 2CD/4LP reissue of Young Team in the summer preceding the release of The Hawk Is Howling, but that wasn’t the only prompt for the comparison. Mogwai returned to Chem19 studios, last used for the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and brought along Young Team co-producer Andy Miller. With ten songs stretching past 63 minutes, The Hawk Is Howling is Mogwai’s longest official LP since Come on Die Young. Finally, it’s entirely instrumental, which some critics bizarrely cited as a return to the group’s roots, even though all of their previous albums had vocals of some sort.
Young Team is my favorite Mogwai album, but I learned to ground my expectations after the Mr. Beast / Loveless fiasco. The Hawk Is Howling is more like Young Team than anything since Come on Die Young, but it’s also informed by those subsequent albums. It’s not a pure trip down memory lane, nor would I want it to be. But the approach of stretching out without getting bogged down in sprawl is welcome after three comparatively tidy LPs. I’m ready for a long Mogwai album again, even if that means sifting through some less interesting passages.
The first half of The Hawk Is Howling is a mixed bag. “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” (which prompted this amusing t-shirt) begins as typical quiet Mogwai, but builds into a dramatic peak in its second half. I could dismiss it as a recapitulation of “Sine Wave” and “Auto-Rock” with faux-strings replacing the dominant electronics of the former and the pared-down palette of the latter, but the moment when the faux-strings, frenzied guitar strumming, and piano align is undeniably effective. “Batcat” revisits the undertow riffage of Mr. Beast’s “Glasgow Mega-Snake,” capping off its final minute with a blistering assault led by Martin Bulloch’s most fearsome drumming in ages. “Daphne and the Brain,” a mid-tempo track that’s gradually taken over by IDM textures and fluttering beats, doesn’t make much of an impression. “Local Authority” thrives on open space and muted emotions, showing how a bit of the Zidane approach can go a long away. “The Sun Smells Too Loud” is atypically bright, a jaunty, melodic track that weaves an insistent guitar figure through layers of synthesizer and programming. It was released as the advanced .mp3 for Hawk, which made sense in that it’s a friendly, catchy song, but its cheerful tone sticks out on the reserved Hawk. It would have made more sense as a non-album single. The mathematically incorrect first half of Hawk concludes with “Kings Meadow,” another mellow track that forgoes percussion to give more space to its graceful arrangement of piano and guitar lines. It’s too bad they filled some of that space with intrusive electronic twinkling. That tendency for out-of-place IDM textures is my least favorite element of the album.
The Hawk Is Howling concludes with a fantastic four-song stretch. “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” has the best dynamic range from both production and performance standpoints since the No Education version of “Xmas Steps.” It’s not just the barely audible bass line that starts the song; it’s how the restrained calm of the first “verse” ratchets up the tension. By all means it should be louder, should pick up speed faster, but Mogwai’s committed to the plan. When the barricades finally break and the scraggly guitar lines blow up the school, it feels remarkably natural and yet still terrifying. “Scotland’s Shame” shows similar patience with its eight minutes, taking the blurred guitar and humming organs from their Zidane soundtrack and building them into a death march. The floating chimes of “Thank You Space Expert” nails Mogwai’s calm side, cresting weightlessly like the song’s title suggests. Hawk closes out with “The Precipice,” another pitch-perfect dynamic rocker like “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School,” but with the nasty edge of “Like Herod” or Mr. Beast’s “We’re No Here.” The drop-out to just the main riff at 4:10 is particularly devastating. These four songs make up one of the best 30-minute stretches in Mogwai’s catalog.
But what about The Hawk Is Howling as a whole? Unlike Come on Die Young, which plods through its mid-album bloat, The Hawk Is Howling isn’t weighed down by the slight missteps in its middle section. Would the album be tighter and more consistent if “The Sun Smells Too Loud” and “Daphne and the Brain” became the A and B sides of a non-album single, or if one of “Local Authority” and “Kings Meadow” slipped to a b-side? Sure. But as-is, I can listen to all of The Hawk Is Howling without looking at the clock.
Batcat EP – Matador, 2008
Overall: There are three reasons to purchase the Batcat EP. First, you want very much to own a song called “Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Police and Loses His Slut Girlfriend.” I do not blame you. It is an awesome title. You can easily overlook how its tense electronic tinkling isn't memorable enough to merit inclusion on The Hawk Is Howling. Second, you’d like to hear psych-rock pioneer Roky Erickson (of the 13th Floor Elevators) croon along with a typically melancholic Mogwai song, “Devil Rides.” Erickson’s textured, weathered voice imbues lines like “Did you miss me? I seemed so sure / The days seem longer, now you're gone” with a learned sadness. Finally, if you get the twelve-inch pressing, there’s a lovely shot of some trees at night in the inside of the sleeve.
Frankly, I wish there were more reasons to recommend it, but Mogwai’s getting stingy with the EPs lately. Batcat came out two weeks before The Hawk Is Howling. That’s not enough time to be a proper teaser. At the very least, cram it with material. “Batcat” fills an entire side of 180 gram vinyl and it’s the album version of the song. It’s not like I’m going to skip out on the album.
Special Moves – Rock Action, 2010
Highlights: “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “Glasgow Mega-snake,” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”
Overall: The release of Special Moves prompted Mogwai’s inclusion in Discographied, and if I valued punctuality in the slightest, it would have made a marvelous conclusion for the series. Writing about every major Mogwai release was far more tedious than I expected, but Special Moves reminds me why I’m a Mogwai fan. It’s as close to a greatest-hits compilation as you’re likely to get from the band and a vital document of their live show. It’s also a valid starting point for newcomers. The only people who won’t like this album are jerks. And I’m a jerk, so even that theory is out of the window.
Recorded during a three-night stint at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, Special Moves spans from Ten Rapid to The Hawk Is Howling. Their albums, minus Zidane, are each represented, and it’s hard to take umbrage with any of the selections. My dream set list would run four hours and include “Stanley Kubrick,” “My Father My King,” “Ex-Cowboy,” “Tracy,” “Christmas Steps,” “Small Children in the Background,” “Sine Wave,” Superheroes of BMX,” and “Travel Is Dangerous,” but I won’t admit that’s an unreasonable request for a live album. What I will admit is that the songs Mogwai chose for Special Moves are worthy of inclusion.
Opener “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” is free of the canned strings of the Hawk recording, and sounds considerable more powerful in the live setting. It leads into the elegant piano melody of Mr. Beast’s “Friend of the Night,” which flows naturally into the mid-tempo vocoder coos of Happy Songs’ “Hunted by a Freak.” It’s an excellent, if slightly restraint start, but things only get better from here.
The show-stopping moment comes in “Mogwai Fear Satan,” which shouldn’t be a surprise given the relentless praise I’ve given that song throughout this feature. After a familiar open demonstrating its brute force, glistening guitar textures, and floating melody, “Mogwai Fear Satan” lulls you to sleep for almost three minutes. It’s a simple, brutally effective trick. Shifting from near silence to raging storms, Mogwai jolt into top gear, with Martin Bulloch drumming like a man possessed. What impresses me so much about this take on “Mogwai Fear Satan” is that it shows Mogwai’s compositional flexibility in the live setting. Between trimming four minutes from the original run time, restructuring the song for maximum shock value, and adding live-wire guitar improvisations, “Mogwai Fear Satan” underscores what’s great about the original without sounding like rote rehearsal.
Things calm down with Come on Die Young’s slow-core ballad “Cody,” which looses up a bit from the austere beauty of the Government Commissions take. Rock Action’s “You Don’t Know Jesus” is a welcome inclusion, bringing some piercing feedback to the peaks of its crescendos. Happy Songs’ piano-led instrumental “I Know You Are but What Am I” is given a makeover with squelching, pitch-shifted leads, but its carefully constructed underbelly remains intact. The Hawk Is Howling highlight “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” hits both ends of its dynamic range on the nose, especially the introspective calm of its 90-second intro.
The home stretch of Special Moves starts with Rock Action’s centerpiece “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” Without studio trappings like banjo, horns, and a choral arrangement, the live take relies on aggressive drum pads, angling scythes of guitar, and Barry Burns’ digitized vocals to hit its fever pitch. Young Team’s “Like Herod” makes its mandatory appearance in any collection of Mogwai live songs, coming in at a svelte ten-and-a-half minutes. It’s not the end-all, be-all take from Government Commissions, but it fits in here nicely and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Special Moves proper concludes with a pummeling rendition of Mr. Beast’s “Glasgow Mega-Snake,” suggesting that Mogwai can, in fact, close a show without twenty minutes of distorted wreckage.
Special Moves comes with an encore of sorts: six songs included either on the fancy 3LP edition or as downloads with the standard set. Those selections—“Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home,” “Scotland’s Shame,” “New Paths to Helicon, Part 1,” “Batcat,” “Thank You Space Expert,” and “The Precipice”—lean heavily on The Hawk Is Howling, but that’s hardly a surprise given which album they were currently promoting. They certainly chose the best six songs to include from that album. Of the “encore” set, “Helicon 1” is the clear highlight, a staring-into-the-sun dose of blissful guitar noise.
Some editions of Special Moves also include a concert film from Vincent Moon and Nat Le Scouarnec called Burning. If you’re hoping for uncut takes of every song from Special Moves, Burning will be a head-scratcher. It includes parts of eight songs from Special Moves (four from the main set, four from the “encore”), so you get the woozy highlights of “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” stitched together without their lengthy build-ups along with a few full-length songs. ("Mogwai Fear Satan" is included in its entirety as a bonus feature.) The selling point for Burning is its black-and-white cinematography, which captures both the band and the audience with nicely framed shows loaded with shadows and intentional grain. I’ve come around on the editorial approach; I’d prefer to have 47 minutes of material filmed like this than two hours of static shots. (If you want two hours of aesthetic-free static shots, consult the DVD for Mono’s otherwise commendable Holy Ground: Live from NYC with the Wordless Music Orchestra.)
Special Moves makes me wish I’d caught Mogwai on every available tour, not just twice in Chicago in 1999 and 2001. (I also had planned concerts in Boston from 1998 and 2008 cancelled because of a flooded Middle East and Martin Bulloch’s pacemaker scare, respectively.) It has me chomping at the bit for their show here in two weeks. If my past experiences and Special Moves are any indication, they’ll play their best songs, improve the highlights from their most recent album, and leave me wondering how I could ever find so much to nitpick with Mr. Beast and Happy Songs for Happy People—provided, of course, that they only play the best two songs from each. If you have a chance to catch them, certainly do so. If not, Special Moves/Burning is an excellent substitute.
If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King, and part six covers Happy Songs for Happy People and Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003. This time I cover the infuriating mix of overblown expectations and moderate rewards of Mr. Beast, its two fans-only singles for Friend of the Night and Travel Is Dangerous, and their soundtrack for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
Mr. Beast – Matador, 2006
Highlights: “Glasgow Mega-Snake,” “Auto-Rock,” “Friend of the Night,” “Travel Is Dangerous”
Low Points: Nothing egregious, but I’ll name “Emergency Trap” and “I Chose Horses” as the weakest links
Overall: After the underwhelming Happy Songs for Happy People, my expectations for Mogwai were at an all-time low. Yet Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, managed to perk up my ears by calling the forthcoming Mr. Beast “probably the best art rock album I've been involved with since Loveless. In fact, it's possibly better than Loveless.”
Better than Loveless, you say?
Now McGee’s both a hyperbolic fellow and Mogwai’s manager at the time, so the logical inclination is to take a statement like that with a grain of salt, but damned if it didn’t get my hopes up. Sadly, Mr. Beast is no Loveless. That point of comparison is absolutely baffling to me, since Mr. Beast is a tidy, effective condensation of what Mogwai’s done to date, not a vast leap forward. Not a genre-defining classic. Not an aesthetic touchstone for decades to follow. McGee’s claim did a massive disservice to Mogwai, since it stresses what Mr. Beast lacks and glosses over its strengths.
Mr. Beast’s strengths and weaknesses boil down to a single word: professionalism. Mogwai’s songs have never been so carefully honed, so diligently arranged. Back on Ten Rapid and Young Team, Mogwai were not nearly this meticulous. “New Paths to Helicon (Pt. 2)” is wonderfully minimal, just a few guitar lines winding together over a casual drum beat. “Tuner” is intimate and hushed. Stuart Braithwaite’s mumbled “Talked to cats for a while” is chillingly lonely. “Tracy” finds heartbreak in the spaces between the glockenspiel melody. Even their towering achievement, “Mogwai Fear Satan,” is built around three chords. These songs aren’t marvels of individual technical achievements (although Martin Bulloch slays on “Satan”), but they’re effective compositions. Yet as each album passed, those gaps were shaded in. They wrote more intricate arrangements, incorporated all five members equally, and brought in more collaborators. They became professionals.
By all means, Mogwai should be taking their craft seriously on their fifth proper LP. They should be professionals. If they’d continued to wing “Katrien” knock-offs, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. But this professionalism can be hard to love. The simple gaps and open spaces are few and far between, providing fewer jumping-off points for my imagination. Dusted Magazine’s scathing review of Mr. Beast closes with the assertion that, unlike Loveless, “there is no mystery - everything is on display.” While I don’t share Jon Dale’s spite for the material (or his considerably more esoteric taste in music), I can see his point. Post-rock, theoretically at least, requires such mystery. The usual absence of vocals/lyrics means that there’s no dominant interpretation of what the song is about. Instead, you fill in those gaps, provided that they exist. That’s the brilliance of “Mogwai Fear Satan” and the limitation of Mr. Beast.
Perhaps if Alan McGee hadn’t mentioned “art rock” or Loveless and instead claimed that Mr. Beast is Mogwai’s most rock-rock album, I would have initially viewed the record differently. There may not be a ton of mystery, but every one of these songs has something to offer and they all fit together as a solid album. Piano-driven opener “Auto Rock” is a forceful restructuring of Rock Action’s “Sine Wave,” recalculating its graphical plot into a straight diagonal between X and Y. The pounding drum beat is savagely effective. “Glasgow Mega-Snake” is a compact rocker with their meanest harmonic-laden riffs to date. “Acid Food” merges the hushed Braithwaite vocals and lap steel of “Cody” with the drum machines and gurgled electronics of Rock Action and Happy Songs for Happy People. “Travel Is Dangerous” is their most straightforward vocal indie rock song, closest to Aereogramme’s charging rockers. It’s hard to imagine Braithwaite having the confidence to pull “Travel” off on any prior Mogwai release. “Team Handed” improves those mid-tempo Come on Die Young songs with a longing melody and intrusive electronic touches. “Friend of the Night” frames one of their most polished piano melodies with blurred guitar and humming synths. The melancholy “Emergency Trap” floats by pleasantly. At 3:34, “Folk Death 95” is the tidiest condensation of Mogwai’s dynamic range here, hitting both the carefully arranged valleys and the textured guitar noise peaks. “I Chose Horses” features spoken Japanese vocals from Envy singer Tetsuya Fukagawa (who apparently traded his appearance for the right to completely rip off “Helicon One” for Envy’s “Further Ahead of Warp” from Insomniac Dose). Album closer “We’re No Here” is a bruising, six-minute evocation of the violence of “Like Herod.”
Every one of Mr. Beast’s songs is, at the very least, good. Some are excellent. There are no regular skips. No clear missteps. No padding. Mr. Beast has the best start-to-finish flow of any Mogwai album. Yet all of the prevailing critiques—it’s not a grand statement like Loveless; it lacks the open spaces of their finest works; there’s no overwhelming standout—are entirely valid. I’ve gone back and forth between these perspectives again and again during the course of writing about the album, rewriting it countless times to try to nail that internal back and forth.
It comes down to a simple realization: when I think about Mr. Beast, I like it less; when I listen to it, I like it more. That split is at the heart of criticism, the divide between higher-level thinking and gut reactions. Usually I find a healthy middle-ground, but Mr. Beast defies such finality. It’s either a disappointment in comparison to Mogwai’s finest works or a unique entry in their discography. If you can take McGee’s claims with a grain of salt and carry less baggage for Mogwai’s early work, it’s more likely to qualify for the latter status. Perhaps once I stop trying to write about the album, I’ll join you there.
Friend of the Night and Travel Is Dangerous – PIAS UK, 2006
Highlights: “Auto-Rock (Errors Remix)”
Low Points: “Like Herod (Live)” is better elsewhere
Overall: I’ve lumped together the two import-only singles from Mr. Beast, even though they have never been compiled as such. (You’ll have to wait until 2016’s deluxe edition of the album for that to happen.) Friend of the Night features two original b-sides, whereas Travel Is Dangerous offers two remixes and two live tracks. In 1997 I called these things CD5s, but apparently Travel Is Dangerous qualifies as an EP. We’ll see about that, Mogwai.
The two b-sides from Friend of the Night are perfect companion pieces for Mr. Beast, but not quite good enough to merit padding that album’s tidy runtime. “Fresh Crown” combines gentle piano, drum machine, and carefully pruned guitar feedback into a lovely package that ends all-too suddenly. “1% of Monster” pulls a familiar melodic pattern out of whirring noise and heavier drum pattern, recalling a more controlled version of “Superheroes of BMX.” Is it strange that these songs remind me most of earlier Mogwai b-sides?
On the surface, Travel Is Dangerous is considerably less essential. Two remixes and two live takes, one of which is of “Like Herod,” which you can find in excellent versions on both Government Commissions and Special Moves. Yet the Errors remix of “Auto Rock” is a personal favorite, a natural incorporation of Mogwai’s stoic piano opener into Errors’ dance-friendly electronic post-rock. Hopefully it encourages you to track down Errors’ two LPs and EP, all released on Mogwai’s Rock Action label. Acid Casuals, a side-project of Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals, provide a playful remix of “Friend of the Night” that floats by calmly. As for the live tracks, I have little need for another take of “Like Herod,” while “We’re No Here” isn’t noticeably different.
“Fresh Crown,” “1% of Monster,” and the Errors remix of “Auto Rock” are all fine, but let’s be honest: neither of these singles offers anything as revelatory as “Superheroes of BMX,” “Small Children in the Background,” or “Stanley Kubrick.” Don’t feel any rush to track them down. Waiting until 2016 might be a prudent decision. In the meantime, check out Errors.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – PIAS UK, 2006
Highlights: “7:25,” “Half Time,” “Black Spider”
Low Points: “Terrific Speech,” “Time and a Half”
Overall: I’ve spent less time with Mogwai’s soundtrack for the documentary film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait than any of their LPs. Its initial import-only release postponed my purchase of the album, only to later learn that the vinyl would never come stateside. I got a burned copy of the similarly import-only film from a friend, but my lone viewing of it didn’t floor me. Had I been a bigger fan of soccer/football at the time, perhaps it would have made more of an impression. But Mogwai’s soundtrack works best in conjunction with the film, not separated from it, so listening to it as a stand-alone album is an uphill battle.
This soundtrack’s foremost limitation is simple: it only shows the reserved, often minimal side of Mogwai. The “Rollerball,” “Burn Girl Prom Queen,” “Helps Both Ways,” “Emergency Trap,” “New Paths to Helicon (Part Two)” side. I enjoy that side of Mogwai’s music, but not exclusively. Think back to the stretch of Come on Die Young that lingers too long on mid tempos and clean guitar lines. I needed variety then, and I need it even more now. Mogwai’s Zidane soundtrack is 74 minutes long with the emphasis on long.
Repeated musical themes makes perfect sense for a film, but as an album, such repetition is tiresome. Here you have “Black Spider” and “Black Spider 2.” “Terrific Speech 2” and “Terrific Speech.” “Half Time” and “Time and a Half.” These aren’t vastly different versions. They reuse the same melodic phrasing, the same minimal arrangements. In the case of “Terrific Speech,” I was tired of its warbling organ, distant drumming, and repeated arpeggio the first time around.
Taken individually, however, many of these songs impress. “Black Spider,” originally a Rock Action outtake, recalls the quieter passages of Come on Die Young with its delicate guitar lines, but it’s the most melodically haunting piece here. The fuzz of “Wake Up and Go Berserk” envelops its acoustic guitar picking and stray piano lines, casting aside Mogwai’s usual adherence to structure. “7:25,” a Come on Die Young leftover, passes its layered guitar lines through a warm glow (and thankfully only runs 5:13). “Half Time” turns haunting guitar feedback and introspective piano into a mesmerizing semi-crescendo. “I Do Have Weapons” won’t make any hearts race, but its careful arrangement of back-masked notes, guitar arpeggios, and organs is charming. Put these five understated songs on an EP and it’s suddenly a regular spin.
The elephant in the room is the untitled hidden track that follows “Black Spider 2.” Its twenty-two minutes could be viewed as an ultra-elongated version of “It Would Have Happened Anyway,” but the formless drone has few other points of comparison in Mogwai’s catalog. A quieter version of the climax to “Stereodee,” perhaps? Eventually a pounding drum finds its way through the mist and a single organ line clears things out, but soon enough the washes of guitar noise return. This piece is more akin to Tim Hecker’s ambient noise symphonies or Sonic Youth’s SYR2 than Mogwai’s regular material. Unlike Hecker’s best work, I can’t imagine returning to this untitled track with much frequency.
The obvious advice to hear Mogwai’s music in its proper context first by seeing the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait may not have worked for me, but I still believe it’s the best course of action (especially if you’re fond of the sport). Do that, then come back to the soundtrack and pick through the debris for the winners. If you view this soundtrack as an excellent, mellow EP with some alternate takes instead of one long piece of music, you’ll be happier with the results.
Believe it or not, I'm deadset on finishing this Discographied run soon and moving onto my next selection. If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, and part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King. This entry covers the disappointing, if not disastrous Happy Songs for Happy People and the pleasantly surprising Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003
Happy Songs for Happy People – Matador, 2003
Highlights: “Stop Coming to My House,” “Hunted by a Freak”
Low Points: “Boring Machines Disturb Sleep”
Overall: I had a very, very brief stint writing for Stylus back in 2003, highlighted by a takedown of Liz Phair’s disastrous eponymous effort and done in by the boneheaded decision to review 57 lingering promos from the Signal Drench days (which remains one of my favorite pieces I've done). One of the few new albums I reviewed was Happy Songs for Happy People, which I gave a B-, claiming that “These Happy Songs are fine, but […] praising competence is a backhanded compliment. The highlights would be far better suited to lesser status on a great album, and turning away from the impressive vocal performances of Rock Action to fully retreat into vocoders and hushed mumbling is a step backwards.” I stand by both the grade and the sentiment (skip down four paragraphs for more detail), but there’s an interesting wrinkle. As Stylus often did, there was a second review published for the album, in which Olav Bjortomt awarded it an A. That’s not surprising—certain people claim that Happy Songs is the group’s best album—but it’s not consistent with his back-and-forth throughout the review.
Bjortomt’s review starts off with the admission that every Mogwai album, barring Ten Rapid, disappoints him. Then admits, “They're my favourite band.” After finding the flaws in Mogwai’s first three full-lengths, he comes clean: “At the time I gave the last two glowing write-ups when reviewing them. I was wrong on both counts. I had let my loyalty afflict my impartiality.” This time he vows, “I will cast a cold, unflinching eye” and proclaims, “This is set filler for the new tour.” After praising every single track, he goes broad again: “Mogwai have an album in them, capable of delighting and shocking us, of smashing our craniums in and injecting heroin in our mushed-up brains, then chucking us in a filthy ditch, left to gaze in retarded wonder at the fireworks exploding in the brooding sky.” He realizes that their eventual greatest hits compilation, which he titles “ The Greatest Fucking Record That Kicked Your Ass and Stroked Your Head Like a Puppy,” will be that album. Bjortomt concludes, “Happy Songs is a great album, but not THE great Mogwai album.”
And yet, still an A.
I’ve gone through Bjortomt’s waffling not to show him up or claim review supremacy seven years later, but to empathize with him. When reviewing your absolute favorite band, it’s nearly impossible to prevent loyalty from affecting impartiality—even when you know better. When I reviewed Shiner’s Starless for Signal Drench, I gave it the five-star treatment. With time, I recognized that Starless was a transitional album for the group. Every time I’ve written about Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense, which still stands as my favorite album ever, I consciously avoid mentioning how I view the atmospheric short story reading “Things Gone and Things Still Here (We’ll Need the Machine Guns by Next March)” as an optional piece of the track listing. I’m loyal to both of these bands, too loyal for immediate critical impartiality. Bjortomt’s review is a compelling document of this process. Even when he recognizes the album’s flaws, it’s still an A album. “It’s a Mogwai album,” after all.
And finally I’ll get back to that very statement. As the pull quotes from both reviews have established, Happy Songs for Happy People isn’t an album of hall-of-fame material, but it has its charms. Only two of its songs—“Hunted by a Freak” and “I Know You Are but What Am I”—made the live album Special Moves, which is the closest thing the band’s released to a greatest hits compilation, and neither is of the jaw-dropping epic variety. Breaking the album down, there’s an affecting vocoder-driven song in “Hunted,” two minimal, subtle synth-fests in “Moses I Amn’t” and “Boring Machines Disturb Sleep,” a lush mid-tempo song in “Golden Porsche,” a layered piano ballad in “I Know You Are,” one eight-minute epic in “Ratts of the Capital,” which crests admirably but never goes into Mogwai’s top gear, and three condensed takes on the Mogwai epic: “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” “Killing All the Flies,” “Stop Coming to My House.” It’s a tight 42 minute album with a few relative highs and no major missteps. To revive a confounding bit of grade hedging I learned back in graduate school, I’ll bump my previous score up to a B-/B.
Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 – Matador, 2005
Highlights: “Like Herod,” “Secret Pint,” “Cody,” “Stop Coming to My House”
Low Points: “Kappa,” “Hunted by a Freak”
Overall: This non-comprehensive collection of BBC sessions occupies a curious spot in Mogwai’s discography. Is it their first official live album? Not quite—many of these performances display the control of an in-studio session. Is it a collection of alternate takes? Almost—some songs certainly vary from their original versions, even improving upon them in a few instances, but others are carefully recreated. Is it a best-of sampler? Not without versions of “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” and “Stanley Kubrick.” Government Commissions is somewhere between these three points, offering newcomers a sampling of Mogwai’s work and existing fans fresh takes of songs they know.
It begins with the voice of the sadly departed John Peel ushering in “Hunted by a Freak.” It’s a fine version of one of the highlights from Happy Songs for Happy People, but along with Come on Die Young’s “Kappa,” it’s one of the least surprising (and therefore least necessary) versions here. Young Team’s “R U Still in 2 It” pulls the easy trick of removing Aidan Moffat’s vocals and going instrumental, but its drifting outro is downright lovely. Ten Rapid’s “New Paths to Helicon (Part II)” goes pro, exchanging the minimal presentation of the original version for a more elegant, piano-laden approach. After the shrugging version of “Kappa,” Mogwai keeps with Come on Die Young for a pitch-perfect take on “Cody.”
To this point, Government Commissions has been remarkably reserved, hitting only the chorus crescendo of “Hunted by a Freak,” but the live version of Young Team’s mammoth “Like Herod” takes little time to send out its hulking riffs. There’s no shortage of live versions of “Like Herod” in Mogwai’s catalog—see also the deluxe edition of Young Team, the Travel Is Dangerous EP, and the live album Special Moves—but this take is the keeper. The first time I saw Mogwai was September 10, 1999 at the Metro in Chicago and they closed with “Like Herod.” The trick wasn’t going quiet then loud, but making the loud progressively louder to the point of discomfort. By the end of the song, Stuart Braithwaite had two drum sticks and an action figure lodged in his guitar. Despite the brazen stupidity of not wearing earplugs, I loved every second of that performance, pumping my fist in the air as those wiser individuals around me covered their ears in panic. Unlike the studio version of “Like Herod,” the Government Commissions version gives you a taste of that terrifying torrent of noise. (Necessary postscript: both my ride, the esteemed Jared Dunn, and I felt downright disoriented after the show, which resulted in an disastrous journey back to Champaign. It’s a bad sign when you realize you’re in the wrong state. This anecdote has now become outdated in the age of GPS.)
It amuses me that “Secret Pint” follows such a monumental performance, much like it did on Rock Action, but here the song is up to the task. The instrumental balance is much improved, adding harmonics, downplaying the drums, turning the woozy strings into an affecting cello performance, and smoothing things over with a blissful hum reminiscent of Ten Rapid. What was one of my least favorite songs on Rock Action becomes one of my favorites here.
“Superheroes of BMX” from the 4 Satin EP makes a welcome appearance, not straying too far from the course of the original but finding new streaks of noise to run across the placid baseline. “New Paths to Helicon (Part One)” hits new heights of distorted bliss, extending the superb original take for another two minutes. And closing track “Stop Coming to My House” from Happy Songs for Happy People feels unleashed here, trading the production subtleties of the original for direct power.
The only downside to Government Commissions is the “non-comprehensive” tag I mentioned earlier. Being favorites of John Peel meant that Mogwai appeared a number of times, documented quite well on this site. It’s unfortunate that the links for that site’s unofficial Government Commissions 2 no longer work, since those excluded songs are still worth hearing. The biggest omission from the original compilation is a cover of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry” recorded for the February 17, 1998 show. Along with “Spoon Test,” which morphed into the middle section of “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door,” it’s the only song that didn’t appear elsewhere. Plus, Stuart Braithwaite’s earnest, emotional vocal and the rousing solo both stand up.
Frankly I’d forgotten how good Government Commissions is. The first half of the album and “Secret Pint” demonstrate Mogwai’s quieter side as well as any of their albums, while “Like Herod,” “Helicon (Part One),” and “Stop Coming to My House” show off the energy of their live sets. No, it’s not a proper live album, a collection of thoroughly alternate takes, or a best-of compilation, but it combines aspects of each to claim its place as a necessary piece of Mogwai’s catalog.
Rock Action – Matador, 2001
Highlights: “2 Rights Make One Wrong,” “Sine Wave,” “Dial: Revenge,” “You Don’t Know Jesus”
Low Points: “Robot Chant,” “Secret Pint”
Overall: Rock Action marks the start of a new era for Mogwai LPs. Gone are the hour-long runtimes. Rock Action clocks in at a tidy thirty-eight minutes. Its eight songs include a pair of minute-long snippets: the back-masked piano ballad “O I Sleep” and the industrial fuzz of “Robot Chant.” Subtract those and you’ve got six songs, thirty-six minutes. I can’t help but think of other albums in the “six songs, roughly forty minutes” club: Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Slint’s Spiderland, Rodan’s Rusty, and Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. You were so close, Mogwai. So close.
Decrease in runtime isn’t the only major change. Of the six full tracks, five of them have vocals of some sort (frequently hidden in a vocoder). Only “You Don’t Know Jesus” qualifies as “rocking.” “Sine Wave” has squelching electronic noise reminiscent of IDM. “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” has prominent banjo, strings, and brass, and concludes with a four-person choral arrangement. This emphasis on additional instrumentation didn’t happen overnight. Dave Fridmann applied horns and strings to Come on Die Young. These elements became central parts of their songs on the Mogwai EP. But on Rock Action, these decisions steer songs in new directions.
The songs are still Mogwai songs, though. A top-down view of “Sine Wave” shows a gradual crescendo, even if its sonic profile is nothing like “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home.” The throbbing drums, muffled vocals, and buried melodies of “Sine Wave” may sound little like what came before them, but the effect is still the same. “Take Me Somewhere Nice” revives an atypical Mogwai blueprint—the vocal-driven slow-core of “Cody”—and weaves horns and strings around a regretful Stuart Braithwaite vocal. Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys helms “Dial: Revenge,” layering Welsh vocals around acoustic guitars and yearning strings. If not for the familiar emotional palette, you might wonder which band recorded that song. “You Don’t Know Jesus” reorients the listener back into the world of dimly lit instrumental rock, recalling Come on Die Young’s excellent “Ex-Cowboy.” What it lacks in surprises it makes up for in craftsmanship—few of Mogwai’s dynamic rock songs are this carefully planned and precisely executed.
Those four songs would comprise a very nice EP, but Rock Action becomes a bona-fide full-length with its penultimate song, “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” Like “Mogwai Fear Satan” on Young Team, “2 Rights” comprises a quarter of Rock Action’s runtime. I mentioned the song’s instrumental arrangement earlier—banjo, strings, brass, electronics, vocoder, a four-part chorus—but what I didn’t emphasize is the effect of all of these pieces. “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” hits several awe-inspiring peaks—the rousing brass crescendo in the song’s first half, the quiet mingling of Barry Burns’ vocodered voice and the insistent banjo melody in the song’s introspective valley, and the unexpected beauty of the crossing voices in the choral outro. Here’s the amazing part: none of them are guitar-driven. Credit producer Dave Fridmann for pulling all of these pieces together, but also credit Mogwai for recognizing a simple fact: these moments all sound better with this alternate instrumentation. The song is still fantastic in the guitar-driven live setting, but as a studio recording, it ranks at the very top of Mogwai’s best work.
Rock Action closes with “Secret Pint,” which lingers in the wake of “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” Don’t expect guitars to dominate here, either. Stuart Braithwaite’s mumbled vocal, up-front drums, lingering piano, and occasional strings all take precedence over the quietly strummed guitars. My preference would be to close Rock Action with the uplifting finale of “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” not give it a reserved coda. It certainly is strange that once I finish praising Fridmann for his superb job elevating “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” with his production touches, “Secret Pint” feels overwhelmed by them. I greatly prefer the version included on Government Commissions, but I’ll get to that one later.
Rock Action ranks as my second favorite Mogwai full-length behind Young Team. I can certainly understand the logical slights against the album—it’s close to EP length, it doesn’t feature as much guitar rock as their other albums, the emphasis on vocals gets them away from their usual strengths—but for the most part, I view each of those points as a blessing. The last thing I wanted following Come on Die Young was another sprawl-heavy double album. After the excellent Mogwai EP, I recognized Mogwai’s capacity to write music that didn’t require a crescendo into distorted guitar to succeed. Songs like “Cody,” “R U Still in 2 It,” and “Tuner” demonstrated Mogwai’s aplomb for a variety of vocal approaches, so the array of voices on Rock Action isn’t some unforeseen outlier. It certainly doesn’t hurt that one of my two favorite Mogwai songs, “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” holds the album together. It’s the start of a new era of shorter, tighter Mogwai albums, but it stands apart from Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast in quality and approach.
Despite this praise, I have a major qualifier for Rock Action: don’t start here. Know the norms first so you can appreciate how Rock Action deviates from them (precisely what post-rock should do). Check out Young Team, Mogwai EP, and one of the live compilations, then come to Rock Action and it’ll be a breath of fresh air.
My Father My King – Matador, 2001
Overall: Warning: The majority of this entry on Mogwai’s “My Father My King” is a screed against the production values/decisions for the song. Let me not forget to emphasize that “My Father My King” is a completely badass, inspired song that you definitely need to hear in some capacity. If not for those production issues, it would be firmly among “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” in the holy trinity of Mogwai epics. Now let the diatribe begin.
I rarely take issue with Steve Albini’s engineering jobs. He’s done absolutely perfect work on albums like the Jesus Lizard’s Goat, Silkworm’s Firewater, Shellac’s At Action Park and The Forms’ self-titled LP. You know what you’re going to get with Albini: a remarkable replication of what it’s like to be in the room while the band is playing. Whether that result fits a band’s sound, however, is the rub. Two conditions have to be met: first, you have to sound good in the room, i.e. be a “tight” live band; second, it’s best if you don’t use the studio as an instrument, Eno-style. It’s the second condition where My Father My King falls short, which is an ironic turn of events.
An emphasis on the “studio as an instrument” approach is the defining aspect of producer Dave Fridmann’s stint behind the boards for Mogwai’s previous two full-lengths. What works so well for the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and the Delgados—an up-front drum sound, space for additional instrumentation like horns and strings, electronic flourishes—has mixed results for Mogwai. Sometimes it excels (“Cody,” “Sine Wave,” especially “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”), sometimes it overwhelms the song (“Helps Both Ways,” “Secret Pint”). My general feeling is that Mogwai were pushed too close to the orchestral rock of Fridmann’s usual clientele, a movement away from their core identity as a guitar-rock band. “My Father My King” is a response to that, a twenty-minute reassurance that they are, in fact, a guitar-rock band, even if its initial potential looked past that distinction.
I first heard “My Father My King” on a webcast of the group’s All Tomorrow’s Parties performance from 2000 (download the mp3 of that performance here). Bolstered by a string trio, Mogwai added another dynamic, eardrum-crushing epic to their repertoire. Basing the song’s melody on the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father Our King”), Mogwai strayed from their usual melodic progressions and gave the adapted hymn an apocalyptic resonance, especially when those strings picked up. The guitars did much of the heavy lifting, taking over the song for stretches, but it was the presence and prominence of the string section that hooked me, offering counter-melodies that pierced through the thick cloud of distortion. When they picked up the main melody over the rumbling noise of the song’s outro, gradually falling more and more out of tune, I couldn’t help but wonder how jaw-dropping it would sound not coming from RealPlayer. Nevertheless, I played that cached stream on a near-constant loop for months.
The one-track CD single for “My Father My King” (hear the first part on YouTube) came out six months after Rock Action. Most reviews were positive, calling it a perfect companion piece for the atypically reserved Rock Action and the monolith that album was lacking (you know, if “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” doesn’t count). I took it a different way: Steve Albini sucked the life out of this song.
That’s not a fair statement, since Albini did what Albini does: replicate the sound in the room. The guitars and bass sound downright venomous, undulating in waves of writhing distortion. The drums sound fine, but Martin Bulloch isn’t as forceful as Albini regulars like Silkworm’s Michael Dahlquist (rest in peace), Shellac’s Todd Trainer, or the Jesus Lizard’s Mac McNeilly. The problem is with the string section. Regular Mogwai collaborators Caroline Barber (cello) and Luke Sutherland (violin) must’ve been set up down the hall, since their presence on the track is so greatly diminished from that All Tomorrow’s Parties performance.
Here’s where Albini’s distinction as an engineer, not a producer, comes into play. As an engineer, he sees Barber and Sutherland walk into the studio, mics their instruments, and records their performance. An engineer wouldn’t insist on multi-tracking the strings for added prominence, bringing in an additional string quartet, or contracting a local orchestra. A producer, on the other hand, might suggest those possibilities. A producer like Dave Fridmann, perhaps? I suspect that a Fridmann recording of “My Father My King” would have the opposite problem of Albini’s take. Yes, the strings would be more prominent, but the guitars wouldn’t have the bite of Albini’s recording. “My Father My King” would not work if it sounded anything like the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev.
The point of releasing “My Father My King” separate from Rock Action was to show a separate side of Mogwai, the dissonant, noisy side, and to their credit, that’s what Albini’s version does. What the All Tomorrow’s Parties performance, out-of-tune strings and all, argues is that showing one side or the other of Mogwai’s aesthetic profile precludes the possibility of showing both sides. I want the nasty guitar noise, but I also want the bombast of a prominent string section. If you’re recording a twenty-minute-long instrumental with apocalyptic overtones, why hold back? Were they afraid of sounding too much like Godspeed You Black Emperor? Maybe I’m spoiled by the resonance of the first version I heard (it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened with Mogwai), but I find myself going back to that version. The point that shouldn’t be overlooked (hence the preface to this entry) is that I am going back to some version, proving that “My Father My King” remains one of Mogwai’s most impressive compositions.
An interesting postscript to this discussion of Mogwai’s production values. They haven’t gone back to a name producer / engineer since “My Father My King,” choosing to record their next four official LPs and the Zidane soundtrack with fellow Scotsmen Tony Doogan, Andy Miller, and Paul Savage (the former drummer of the Delgados who’s also done excellent work with Aereogramme, Arab Strap, and the Twilight Sad). Miller and Savage handled Young Team and much of the other early Mogwai material. Mogwai also built their own studio, Castle of Doom, and have done recording and/or mixing for their most recent albums in it. While I mostly enjoy the production values that these three men have brought to the more recent Mogwai material, I do wonder what they’d sound like with a more hands-on producer brought into the fold.
Mogwai EP – Matador, 1999
Highlights: “Stanley Kubrick,” “Burn Girl Prom Queen”
Overall: I realized something as I put on the Mogwai EP, which I’ve long heralded as one of their finest releases, shortly after listening to Come on Die Young, which I view as one of their biggest disappointments: They’re not all that different. Both releases emphasize lush arrangements and measured tempos over striking dynamic shifts and orgiastic guitar ecstasy. From a distance, the Mogwai EP resembles that dreaded tract of mid-tempo songs that bogs down the middle of Come on Die Young. Yet now it’s grand instead of tedious. Mogwai returned to my mental picture of Come on Die Young as a dreary, grey November afternoon and changed the seasons, opting for early spring or late fall.
How did they do it? Simple: the lush arrangements are now central to the songs. Whereas the horn arrangements on “Helps Both Ways” could have been dropped (and were absent on the original No Education version), the horns on “Burn Girl Prom Queen” are essential. The piano, guitar, and bass create a fine base underneath, but those horns make the eight minutes float by. Similarly, I can’t fathom “Stanley Kubrick” without its pedal steel melody or the evocative whirring texture of the keyboards. Those elements generate the song’s indelible sense of melancholy. “Christmas Song” starts out solely with piano, bringing guitar harmonics and canned strings in to supplement this foundation, but I find myself focusing on the piano. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Mogwai EP’s success is how the only song with a noisy pay-off, the accurately titled “Rage: Man,” is the least satisfying track here. It’s still a carefully crafted song that fits in well with the three which proceed it, but how times have changed when I’m wishing for more lush, mid-tempo material.
As I mentioned with both 4 Satin and No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew), you will rarely encounter just the four songs discussed above on the Mogwai EP. Matador’s US pressing was EP+2, placing “Rollerball” and “Small Children in the Background” from No Education after “Rage: Man.” The Japanese pressing and Chemikal Underground reissue is EP + 6, arranging the three EPs in chronological order. Logistically, EP + 6 is the way to go (currently $13.50 at Parasol), but personally, I prefer how EP + 2 concludes with “Small Children.” Either way, I rank these three EPs above a few of Mogwai’s LPs, so don’t miss out on them. Certainly listen to each on its own accord, however, since this chronological discussion stressed just how important each EP was to that stage of Mogwai’s development.
Travels in Constants, Volume 12 – Temporary Residence Limited, 2001
Overall: Subscription-only series used to be a big deal. The Sub Pop Singles Club helped put that label on the map in 1988—even if Nirvana’s Bleach and subsequent trickle-down Geffen money draped that map in flannel—and roughly a decade later, Temporary Residence Limited’s two subscription series put them on an admittedly much smaller map. Sounds for the Geographically Challenged featured artists like Songs: Ohia, The For Carnation, Fuck, and The Sonora Pine—not huge names in the indie rock universe, but respectable nonetheless. The subsequent Travels in Constants series scored coups with Papa M, Will Oldham, Low, and Mogwai. TRL’s own Eluvium, Explosions in the Sky, and Mono helped close out the series in 2007. Sure, stellar albums like Tarentel’s From Bone to Satellite (which compares admirably to the vast majority of Mogwai’s catalog) helped solidify TRL’s own stable of artists along the way, but it’s impossible to diminish the importance of these series, especially Travels in Constants, for the label’s ultimate success.
Such series are built upon the intoxicating sense of exclusivity. Maybe there’s a band in the queue that’s one of your favorites and you need every last song they release. Maybe you’re interested in making a killing on eBay. Maybe—ideally—you’re intrigued by the label’s sense of direction and want to hear a consistent stream of its chosen tunes. Whatever the justification, these subscriptions allow labels the guaranteed capital to get off the ground, associate bigger names in the genre with them, and encourage you to check out the non-subscription titles. The biggest hurdle is the lump-sum price, something I was never willing or able to pay, but fortunately a few titles slipped through to touring artists like Mogwai.
As romantic as I make these subscription series out to be, such releases are frequently a dumping ground for lesser material. Think about it from the artist’s perspective: are you going to give some up-and-coming label your best new tracks or are you going to save them for your next album? The vast majority of groups will use the subscription release as a chance to clear out their closet or perhaps try a new direction. While I enjoy all three tracks on Mogwai’s Travels in Constants, I can’t argue that this EP is comprised of their top material.
The gentle “Untitled” is the best of the bunch, a pleasant six minutes of floating guitar noise, nonchalant la-la-las, and inviting keyboard and flute melodies laid over a steady beat. If you’re hoping for tension, look elsewhere, but “Untitled” is a welcome addition to the Sunday afternoon playlist. The other two songs are immediately recognizable as b-sides: there’s a “quiet” version of “Stereodee” from the 4 Satin EP and a cover of Papa M’s “Arundel.” The former replaces the reverbed guitar of the original take with a graceful piano. It’s an intriguing trade-off, but not revelatory. Choosing to cover Papa M is a bit curious—yes, David Pajo was in Slint, but as Papa M he’s Mogwai’s peer. “Arundel” lacks the bravado and history of their earlier Black Sabbath, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Spacemen 3 covers, but the end result is a stately bit of piano to close out the EP.
Perhaps Mogwai’s Travels in Constants nails the quality vs. exclusivity debate on the head. If you’re a Mogwai fan willing to hunt down a long out-of-print EP, these three songs offer a nice enough reward. If you’re less dedicated, you’re not missing out on anything essential. And if you subscribed and don’t care about Mogwai, you just made some money on eBay.
This is the third entry into the Mogwai Discographied series. Part one covers Ten Rapid and 4 Satin, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes. Today we move onto the excellent 1998 No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and their disappointing 1999 LP Come on Die Young.
No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) – Chemikal Underground, 1998
Highlights: “Xmas Steps,” “Small Children in the Background”
Low Points: The absence of the original version of “Helps Both Ways”
Overall: Saying “I prefer the earlier version of that track” is one of the go-to retorts for musical elitists like myself, since it’s often a passive-aggressive fuck-off to anyone who wasn’t there first. Nevertheless, there can be an underlying logic to such preferences. Sometimes a song sounds fresher, more inspired on its first recorded take. Sometimes the initial production values fit the track better. Sometimes listeners grow accustomed to the particular cues of the original take and never quite settle in with the newer version. No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) presents two separate instances of this phenomenon.
The promo pressing of No Education = No Future offered three songs—“Xmas Steps,” “Rollerball,” and “Helps Both Ways”—but met legal issues before its proper release. “Helps Both Ways” featured a recording of Pat Summerall and John Madden calling an NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, and sure enough, the network, the league, and the announcers take that message about “no rebroadcast without express written consent” rather seriously, even when it pertains to Scottish post-rock.
It’s a shame, since this original take of “Helps Both Ways” feels more natural than the one which appears on Come on Die Young. The familiar voices of Summerall and Madden, covering a drive helmed by Green Bay’s Brett Farve, could have drifted through the speakers from any languid Sunday afternoon in the mid-to-late 1990s. The specificity of this recording gives an impromptu feeling to the song, like Mogwai’s playing a moody, slow-core jam along to the television in between takes. In contrast, the comparatively anonymous sample from the CODY version almost immediately fades into the background behind more prominent drums and newly added horns. Given that you’ll have to download this original take of “Helps Both Ways” (cough cough) to hear it in the context of No Education, only a remarkably narrow segment of the audience would be affected by the switch, but this version was one of my first MP3s and I could never make the switch to the subsequent CODY take.
Getting back to the regularly scheduled programming, the EP’s lead-off track, the eleven-minute “Xmas Steps,” immediately gained its rightful status as one of Mogwai’s finest epics alongside “Helicon One,” “Like Herod,” and “Mogwai Fear Satan.” It patiently progresses from quiet calm to foreboding doom, from chaotic distortion back to violin-assuaged reserve. This savage dynamic range is a touchstone of the genre, but “Xmas Steps” pulls it off with a rare grace.
Much like “Helps Both Ways,” “Xmas Steps” was re-recorded for Come on Die Young (as “Christmas Steps”), and sure enough, I still prefer the No Education version. It’s a much harder argument to make, since the CODY version has crisper production and a tighter performance, but it loses the original take’s spaciousness and austerity.
If you’re sick of this version control, don’t worry: “Rollerball” is too slight of a song to earn alternate takes. It’s certainly pleasant—a crescendo-free slowcore piano ballad—but not especially memorable. You know what’s more memorable? That steaming turd of a remake of Rollerball from 2002. It’s bad news when Chris Klein and LL Cool J are expected to carry a movie.
Closing track “Small Children in the Background,” however, is memorable in the good way. A hazy lullaby with crests of whirring distortion, anchored by an affecting arpeggio, “Small Children” is one of music’s greatest consolation prizes. Mogwai being ready to slot such a great track into the EP after the legal mess over “Helps Both Ways” is rather astonishing. Much like “Superheroes of BMX,” it’s a b-side that ranks among their finest tracks.
No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) may seem like a mere footnote now, given that all three tracks from the proper pressing have been added to EP + 6, but it’s hard for me not to think of how perfectly this EP maintained the momentum from Young Team. (Much like how Shiner’s Sub Pop single [“Sleep It Off” b/w “Half Empty”] did the same following Lula Divinia.) It’s not an album-length statement, but “Xmas Steps” and “Small Children in the Background” are two Mogwai classics, and the stylistic consistency for either version of the EP is impressive.
Come on Die Young – Matador, 1999
Highlights: “Cody,” “Ex-Cowboy,” “Christmas Steps,” “Chocky”
Low Points: “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia,” “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door”
Overall: By the time that Come on Die Young came out in late March of 1999 (I remember the release and purchase very clearly), my Mogwai fandom was in full bloom. I’d heard a third of the album in alternate takes (“Xmas Steps” and “Helps Both Ways” from the preceding No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP, “Cody” and “Kappa” from Peel Sessions) prior to picking up the album. I’d tracked down the aforementioned EPs and remix CDs. I was ready for another fantastic LP. Unfortunately, Come on Die Young couldn’t top Young Team.
Initially I wasn’t disappointed by Mogwai’s sophomore effort. Perhaps my prevailing misery at the time jibed with the plodding pace of the album and the absence of Young Team’s vibrant colors. But time has not been kind to Come on Die Young’s standing in Mogwai’s ever-expanding catalog. It certainly has higher production values than Young Team, but calling them better is a stretch. Producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips) gives the drums a touch of the Soft Bulletin treatment and adds horns and strings, but it's such a specific sonic palette. Beyond my four favorite songs—“Cody,” “Ex-Cowboy,” “Chocky,” and “Christmas Steps,” which would have made a 36-minute mini LP—there’s a glut of mid-tempo tracks that can’t quite fill the void of dynamic range with a proper level of emotional resonance. You know that feeling in mid November when all of the leaves have fallen off the trees, the ground’s grey and frozen, and yet there’s no snow to be seen? That’s my visual picture of Come on Die Young. Sometimes I feel like November in New England, but most of the time I gaze out the window, hoping for the season to change.
At 67:32, Come on Die Young is only three minutes longer than Young Team, but it feels like so much more of an ordeal. Opening track “Punk Rock” is built around a passage from a 1977 Iggy Pop interview (somehow not this bizarre appearance), in which he claims “Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies and the bodies and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds of young men.” It’s not that dissimilar from the recitation of a show preview leading off “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home” on Young Team, but there’s no lightness, no joy to follow in the song. It’s measured and serious. At least it’s an accurate signal for what’s to come.
The next song, “Cody,” is one of the album’s highlights. A rare unaltered Stuart Braithwaite vocal, “Cody” is a country-ish take on the careful ballads of slowcore bands like Low, Codeine, and Galaxie 500, with a hint of the druggy vibe of Spacemen 3 (whose “Honey” Mogwai covered and included on the Young Team reissue). The lyrics are quietly affecting—“Old songs stay till the end / Sad songs remind me of friends / And the way it is, I could leave it all / And I ask myself, would you care at all”—which makes me wonder why so few Mogwai songs take this approach. The lap steel guitar is an essential addition, a marvelous extension of the glockenspiel and flute touches from Young Team. It should be no surprise this song remains in their set lists.
The next six tracks are patience-testing, mid-tempo plodders. If they’d been spread around the album and trimmed by one or two, the casual beauty of “Helps Both Ways” and “Waltz for Aidan” would be stand-outs, but instead they’re lumped into this tedious exercise. It’s a 27-minute block without a significant crescendo. I fully understand that post-rock can succeed without wall-shaking bursts of noise, but the tense strumming of “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia,” “Kappa,” and “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door” is a brutal tease of an anti-payoff. If you’re going to repeat a trick, make it a good one.
The next three songs salvage Come on Die Young to a certain extent, but they also represent another critical sequencing error: the album’s three longest (and best) songs come in a row. “Ex-Cowboy” rides its mesmerizing bass line through two crescendos of blistering guitar noise. Do you know how much I missed blistering guitar noise? So very much. “Chocky” locates an elongated piano-driven mid-tempo track within the welcome haze of atmospheric noise. And “Christmas Steps,” best version or not, is still a jaw-dropping execution of post-rock’s most primal notions. The woozy two-minute closer “Punk Rock / Puff Daddy / Antichrist” is a drifting recapitulation of the opening track. It makes structural sense but isn’t essential.
Mogwai followed the wrong instincts in by mirroring Young Team’s length but not its balanced structure and varied songwriting. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been, especially after encountering the working track listing for Come on Die Young on the long-running Mogwai fan site Bright Light: “Chocky / “Cody” / Untitled / “Ex-Cowboy” / “Christmas Steps” / “Punk Rock” / “Helps Both Ways” / Untitled. Three specific songs were mentioned as possible b-sides—“Kappa,” “Waltz for Aidan,” and “Oh! How the Dogs Stack Up”—all of which were eventually placed within the mid-album bloat. Envisioning Come on Die Young as a single album with better pacing and fewer mid-tempo tracks is tantalizing, making me itch to revive that Stylus Magazine meme Playing God. (Ian Mathers did one for Young Team and it’s hard for me to control my rage over it right now. Breathe. Breathe.) Yet their next three full-lengths demonstrate that there’s a certain appeal to the unbridled sprawl of Young Team and Come on Die Young. The grass is always greener on the other side in Glasgow.
Welcome to part two of Mogwai Discographied. If you missed part one, you can read about Ten Rapid and 4 Satin here. This time I cover their triumphant debut LP Young Team and the mixed bag remix collection Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes.
Young Team – Jetset, 1997
Highlights: “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “Tracy,” “R U Still in 2 It,” “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home”
Low Points: “With Portfolio”
Overall: I ordered Young Team from Parasol Mail Order in early 1998, prompted by the glowing comparison to Slint. (The Cure and Sonic Youth were the other major touchstones, although far less tempting for me.) Like many of my music purchases at the time, I hadn’t heard a note of Mogwai’s music prior to receiving Young Team. My first taste was its opening track, “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home,” which begins with Mari Myren reading snippets of a show preview from Bergen, Norway—Mogwai’s first gig outside of the UK. Here’s the transcription, courtesy of the unofficial Mogwai site Bright Light:
’Cause this music can put a human being in a trance-like state, and deprive them of the sneaking feeling of existing. 'Cause music is bigger than words and wider than pictures. If someone said that Mogwai are the stars, I would not object. If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this. The punishment for these solemn words can be hard. Can blood boil like this at the sound of a noisy tape that I've heard? I know one thing, on Saturday, the skies will crumble together with a huge bang to fit into the tape.
Let me be perfectly honest. If I heard a band’s debut album in 2010 and the beginning of their first song essentially stated “Holy shit your mind is going to be blown,” it would be awfully hard for me to listen to that record objectively. Yet my seventeen-year-old self was far less cynical, so my response to that opening passage was awe and anticipation, not revulsion. And here’s the key: “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home” backs these words up. Damon Aitchison’s melodic bass line eases the song in from that spoken word introduction, then effortlessly navigates the crescendo. The guitars chime harmonics and carefully prune feedback before opening up with layers of shimmering, back-masked tones. Martin Bulloch’s drumming is bolstered by rhythmic clatter off in the distance. In comparison with Ten Rapid, Young Team is shot in glorious Technicolor.
It’s followed by the first of Young Team’s two mammoth compositions, “Like Herod,” which went by the apt working title of “Slint.” To call it a “live staple” is an understatement: live versions of “Like Herod” have appeared on four separate Mogwai releases. Its closest kin in Slint’s catalog is the untitled 10"—“Like Herod” is a cross between the uneasy tension of “Glenn” and the chaotic noise of “Rhoda.” As an example of the extreme quiet-loud dynamic, “Like Herod” is peerless, but it lacks the mesmerizing sense of melody that Mogwai deliver elsewhere on Young Team.
Despite not owning Young Team on LP, it’s easy to think of it as a double LP with proper sides of vinyl, especially the next three songs. The moody and atmospheric “Katrien” buries a conversational monologue within its tidal movements, but certain phrases pop up with clarity, specifically “I can no longer see, hear, or feel anything / I can see, hear, and feel everything simultaneously” during the song’s most pressing quiet segment. It’s followed by “Radar Maker,” the first of three shorter, piano-based compositions that act as buffers between the major compositions. “Radar Maker” is the quietest of the three, a restrained solo recital with echoes off in the distance. It simmers things down for the inviting melancholy of “Tracy,” which turns two prank calls involving a fake argument between Braithwaite and Aitchison into bookends for a restrained drama scored by a poignant glockenspiel melody and blurred guitar.
It’s not surprising that some material from Ten Rapid would be reconstituted for Mogwai’s proper debut LP, but “Summer (Priority Version)” is dramatically different from the original take. The dynamic range is similar, but the Young Team version is downright claustrophobic, filling out the open space of the Ten Rapid take with a dense arrangement of knotty guitars. Mogwai apparently think this version is rubbish (Braithwaite: "I think that we must have been on crack when we wrote it because it's crap"), but I’ll vouch for it as a natural part of the album. Whether I’ll do the same for “With Portfolio” remains unclear. It juxtaposes a minute of gentle piano with an onset of frantically panning noise, testing listeners’ patience and cranial fortitude. It is not a song I want to hear every time I play Young Team, but along with “Like Herod,” it’s the best indicator of the noise terror of their live shows. (It also works wonders in clearing out an ice arena after open skate.) Whether it’s more of a palette cleanser or an ipecac before “R U Still in 2 It” is up for debate, but it certainly wipes the slate clean before Young Team’s lone proper vocal. “R U Still in 2 It” marks Mogwai’s second collaboration with Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffatt (following “Now You’re Taken” from the 4 Satin EP). The delay-heavy guitar line, bass harmonics, and resonant piano chords ache with Arab Strap’s signature misery, but it’s the switch between Moffatt’s spoken verses and Braithwaite’s lonely chorus that locks the song in memory. What starts as a sing-along for a pub full of sad bastards—“Will you still miss me when I’m gone? / Is there love there even when I’m wrong?”—turns into a solemn admission by song’s end.
“A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters” is the fullest of the three interstitial piano pieces, beginning with an enthusiastic count-off (“1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 / 1 2 3 4 5 6 and on you go!”) and drenching its droning chords and cymbal washes in plenty of reverb. Make no mistake, however—this song works best as a lead-in for Young Team’s final track.
And what a final track it is. “Mogwai Fear Satan”is a towering post-rock epic that was immediately revered as a classic of the genre (and rightly so). As I mentioned in my review of Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport, “Mogwai Fear Satan” is the purest source of musical transcendence I know, a direct mode of transportation to a lush, idealized vision of the Scottish Highlands (or wherever else your mind’s eye takes you). I’ve never been able to accurately relate how “Mogwai Fear Satan” makes this trip happen, since its sixteen minutes are comprised of simple, tangible elements: an ascendant three-chord progression, Martin Bulloch’s fevered drumming, swells of feedback, bursts of distortion, Shona Brown’s flute, and the distant patter of tribal drums. Specific moments within the process are citable—the initial overdrive stomp at 1:45, the rapturous lull at 3:30, the stratospheric ascent at 5:18, the glorious euphony at 9:00, the woozy noise at 14:22—but the whole arc is required. “Mogwai Fear Satan” isn’t just my favorite Mogwai song, it’s one of my top five songs ever.
With such overwhelming praise for a single track, making the argument that Young Team remains Mogwai’s best album would appear to be an impossible task. But these ten tracks form a cohesive, exciting listening experience. Between the blissful overture of “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home,” the tense, dynamic explorations of “Katrien” and “Summer (Priority Version),”the haunting lulls of “Tracy” and “R U Still in 2 It,” the table-setters of “Radar Maker” and “A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters,” and the monoliths of “Like Herod” and “Mogwai Fear Satan,” there’s a welcome compositional variety. More than anything else, Young Team thrives on a sense of exploration that later Mogwai albums lack. Here, they write the songs necessary to fill in the big picture, later they write Mogwai songs necessary to fill in the big picture. That’s a small but critical difference, one that will keep coming up with albums like Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast.
One footnote: Given its stature (and original US pressing on Jetset), Young Team earned a 2CD/4LP reissue from Chemikal Underground in 2008. In addition to remastering the quiet mix of the original pressing, the bonus disc added nine tracks of rarities and live tracks. Come on Die Young or the Mogwai EP than Young Team. “I Don’t Know What to Say” is an ambient mix of conversation samples and unobtrusive noise, excavated from the Radio 1 Sound City compilation. “I Can’t Remember” is a claustrophobic mix of piano, drum loops, and guitar that never breaks the tension. Their cover of Spacemen 3’s “Honey,” originally included on 1998’s A Tribute to Spacemen 3 alongside Low, Arab Strap, Accelera Deck, and others, displays an occasional tendency (seen next on Come on Die Young’s “Cody” and their Peel Session cover of Guns n Roses’ “Don’t Cry”) and surprising aptitude for vocal-driven romanticism. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks. The remaining five songs are live recordings of “Katrien,” “R U Still in 2 It,” “Like Herod,” “Summer (Priority Version),” and “Mogwai Fear Satan.” Only “Katrien” and “Summer (Priority Version)” don’t appear elsewhere in superior live renditions. This disc isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice reward for the die-hard proponents of Young Team like myself.
Kicking a Dead Pig: Mogwai Songs Remixed / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes – Jetset, 1998
Highlights: Remixes from My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, Kid Loco, and Hood
Low Points: Remixes from DJ Q, Alec Empire, and μ-Ziq .
Overall: Let me state the obvious: Kicking a Dead Pig and Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes are remix albums, so you should not expect across-the-board success. By my estimation, the average success rate for a remix album is at most 33%. A third of the songs are intriguing, but flawed. Another third are failures, either because the source material doesn’t work with the remixer’s aesthetic or because the remixer’s aesthetic is terrible to begin with. The final third gets it, and perhaps one or two of those tracks transcend the exercise and stand on their own. Allow me to test my math. There are twelve total remixes here—Mogwai’s own reworking of “Mogwai Fear Satan” appears on each disc—so in theory, there should be four in each pile. One final caveat: these discs came out in 1998, so you’re bound to encounter a boatload of dated electronic motifs.
I’ll start with the outright failures. DJ Q’s remix of “R U Still in 2 It” is the laziest of the lot, stripping the original down to its ghostly opening guitar line, then plopping a generic, club-friendly beat on top. Alec Empire’s take on “Like Herod” is a dumping ground of breakbeats apparently left over from Atari Teenage Riot. μ-Ziq’s hyperactive rendering of “Mogwai Fear Satan” piles on breakbeats, shifting synth chords, and atypical moog keyboard melodies, but nothing sticks. These three songs were downright painful to sit through.
More tracks fall under the middling, take-it-or-leave-it banner. Max Tundra’s scratchy remix of “Helicon Two” drifts through remnants of that song’s strong melodic character and a few anxious noise bursts, but doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Surgeon turns “Mogwai Fear Satan” into a buzzing drone symphony, like a denser version of Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet, but there’s a disappointing lack of melody. Arab Strap’s “Gwai on 45” runs through a few Mogwai songs, including “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Katien,” but never develops a theme beyond “club sampler.” On any given remix album there’s usually at least one remix that sounds nothing like the original, but manages to sound decent enough on its own, and this time it’s Third Eye Foundation’s “A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters (Tet Offensive Remix).” There isn’t even a hint of the dominant piano part from the original. Twelve years ago Klute’s “Summer (Weird Winter Remix)” would have likely been deemed a success, but its dated breakbeat exercises bring down an otherwise good incorporation of the song’s melody.
Finally, the winners. Kid Loco’s “Tracy (Playing with the Young Team Remix)” is the unanimous winner of Kicking a Dead Pig, building a late night groove from the original version’s bass line. The change in mood from the hesitant, melancholic original to the chilled-out remix is seamless, with the new drum beat and swooping electronics making an enormous difference. It’s not necessarily better than the original, but it’s close. On the other hand, Hood’s reworking of “Like Herod” doesn’t quite stand on its own, but it’s an excellent companion piece. Whereas the original relies on its brutally violent climax, the remix’s droning strings linger on the song’s tensest valleys, refusing to relieve the tension. Mogwai tend to rework “Mogwai Fear Satan” in the live setting to trim down its sixteen minutes, but their mellow, nearly ambient take is no mere edit. The first half removes the drums, letting a heavily smeared version of the song’s chord progression float until the flutes finally join the (after) party. They get to take center stage for a minute before the bass drum begins thundering in the distance. Guitar feedback eventually overtakes everything else, bringing the remix to a close. Aside from Martin Bulloch’s furious performance, every major element from the original is present, but moved around so their effects are entirely new.
The most significant song on Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes is the My Bloody Valentine remix, both in length and in stature. At the time, a Kevin Shields remix was perceived as a tremendous endorsement, since anything new from his camp was cherished (see: his sublime version of Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater”). His remix of “Mogwai Fear Satan” is mammoth, running nearly the entire length of the original at 16:12, and it’s a masterpiece of texture. Alien guitar warbling? Check. Glorious electronic tinkling? Check. A womb-like recreation of the original’s flute lulls? Check. An eardrum-shattering blast of white noise? Check. There’s so much going on, so much to digest. The abrasive noise section is admittedly a bone likely to lodge in your throat, which is why this remix isn’t a regular listen, but I wouldn’t dare request its removal. It’s what the noise blast of “Stereodee” should have been. Of the outside remixers, only Kevin Shields fully grasped every aspect of the original song’s appeal.
Three, five, four. I promise you I didn’t tally those up before proclaiming the rule of thirds. Getting four viable remixes out of this lot is par for the course, even if the tremendous achievement of the My Bloody Valentine remix goes above and beyond. If you’re hoping for more diligent testing of this theory, don’t hold your breath; after enduring the entirety of Kicking a Dead Pig and Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, it will be quite some time before I tackle another full remix album.