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Mogwai Discographied Part Eight: The Ghostly Chase

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

Mogwai's The Hawk Is Howling

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. Mogwai's Batcat EP

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.

Mogwai's Special Moves

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.