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Mogwai Discographied Part One: Imperfect Sound Forever

I realized two things as I spun the advance leak of Mogwai’s live album, Special Moves, over and over: first, that I’d have to bite the bullet and order the deluxe 3LP+CD+DVD set; second, and more importantly, that for all of my frustrations with the band not consistently reaching its transcendent high-water marks, Mogwai is still one of my favorite groups. Sure, I’d kill for an album of peaks like “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” and “Helicon One”—or pay $60 for the limited edition of a live record containing those songs—but virtually every release in their catalog is worthy of attention.

Mogwai bristles at being designated “post-rock,” holding dear to the idea that they’re just a rock band like the Stooges or Black Sabbath, but few bands have dictated the course of post-rock as much as they have. Perhaps this angst over the genre is due to motifs they originated becoming clichés in lesser hands and then critically re-applied back to their newer work—a point which isn’t entirely off-base—but whereas other prominent post-rock bands have splintered, run out of creative energy, or dropped off my radar completely, Mogwai has persevered. Even if they disdain the genre, it doesn’t deter from their ability to write wonderful songs within it.

Unlike my Sonic Youth Discographied feature, I will cover the vast majority of Mogwai’s various singles and EPs, since they don’t have fifteen full-lengths to cover. This post starts with Ten Rapid and 4 Satin, their first two proper releases.

Mogwai's Ten Rapid

Ten Rapid: Collected Recordings 1996-1997 – Jetset, 1997

Highlights: “Helicon One,” “Helicon Two,” “Summer”

Low Points: “I Am Not Batman,” “End” is padding

Overall: Few of my favorite bands boast this flattering of an infancy.* Hum’s Fillet Show is a false start; good luck hearing any of those songs in their sporadic reunion sets. My Bloody Valentine’s early material explored gothic tendencies, not guitar bliss. Juno’s earliest demos were wisely kept under wraps, since those solo-heavy recordings would have lumped them in with countless Seattle grunge bands. Early Shudder to Think is faster, sure, but lacks any subtlety. So why is Ten Rapid worth hearing when those albums are for pure die-hards only?

The most simple answer is that their initial blueprint remained true. Each successive full-length adds more compositional depth, but the guiding principles of the band were sound at the beginning. Going back to a minimal song like “Helicon Two” or “A Place for Parks” isn’t an alienating experience like unearthing Fillet Show—they still feel like Mogwai songs. There are brief interludes of vocal slowcore, but they make sense within the surroundings, even if that approach was largely abandoned. They also had the presence of mind to turn these scattered seven-inches into a viable album, leaving behind the weakest of the lot.

Ten Rapid’s sequencing is one of its strengths, abandoning the chronological release dates of its eight previously released songs (closing track “End” is “Helicon Two” played backwards—Murder by Death did the same trick on Like the Exorcist but with More Breakdancing, back when they were called Little Joe Gould and were more influenced by Mogwai than Johnny Cash) in favor of a regular album flow. “Summer” begins with hazy foreshadowing of the song’s soaring guitars, crashing crescendos, melodic chimes, and hyperactive drumming. “New Paths to Helicon (Part Two)” strips things down to a gentle drumbeat and a wandering guitar line, with the occasional gurgle of bass beneath. “Angels vs. Aliens” twists the pummeling textures of “Summer” into a tense rhythmic knot. The ambient “I Am Not Batman” and lovely “Tuner” present Mogwai as a slowcore band more akin to Codeine and Low than Slint. (The best comparison for “Tuner” might be Pavement’s “Strings of Nashville.”) “Ithica 27 ϕ 9” finds the natural transition between the lulls of “Helicon Two” and the rage of “Summer” in its quiet-loud-quiet structure. “A Place for Parks” is a mellow jam leading into the collection’s triumphant high-point, “New Paths to Helicon (Part One).” The instrument switching is key, since Stuart Braithwaite plays the loping, melodic bass line and Damon Aitchison contributes the blurry swaths of guitar noise. What strikes me about “Helicon One” (and why it’s still a regular in Mogwai set lists) is its simplicity—everything contributes to that gradual curve upward, nothing sticks out. As such, it’s remarkably easy to get lost in the mist.

The only previously released Mogwai song not to make the cut for Ten Rapid was the b-side to the “Tuner” single, “Lower.” Its angst-driven rock and jarring transitions have false start written all over them, so you weren’t missing much.

Perhaps my fondness for Ten Rapid was contingent upon getting into Mogwai close to the ground floor. There’s less distance between the early material here and Young Team than say, 2006’s Mr. Beast. If you’re used to the polish of the later works, perhaps the lo-fi charms of “Tuner” and “Helicon Two” won’t affect you, but it amazes me how well Ten Rapid has held up to thirteen years of post-rock development and scrutiny.

* I recognize how many exceptions there are to this statement, especially from the last decade, but the 1980s and 1990s seem more populated with ragged beginnings and false starts than brilliant opening statements. Also, I'd rather continue to be interested in a group's development than gradually lose interest as they lose inspiration (See: Interpol).

Mogwai's 4 Satin EP

4 Satin EP – Jetset, 1997

Highlights: “Superheroes of BMX,” the first five minutes of “Stereodee”

Low Points: “Stereodee” sure goes on for a while

Overall: The 4 Satin EP is a confounding bit of Mogwai lore. Early pressings from Jetset Records, like the one I own, had an unintended song (“Guardians of Space”) and an alternate, lesser take on “Stereodee.” If your CD has four tracks, it’s the misprint. It’s no surprise this release was later collected along with No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) (which has its own curious history) and Mogwai EP as EP + 6. While I highly recommend tracking that compilation down to prevent any potential frustration, I’ll discuss the EPs separately.

If you have the proper version of 4 Satin, a sampled conversation and drum machine intro lead off the understated “Superheroes of BMX,” one of my favorite Mogwai songs. Two sighing keyboard chords alternate as guitar arpeggios and live drums filter into the mix. The melancholy turns tense as squalls of feedback arc over the wavering lead guitar, but the song never loses its grounding emotion. It’s a loose, rambling song, lacking the precision of their later work, but that combination of anxious noise and insistent melancholy covers up any flaws.

“Now You’re Taken” marks the group’s first collaboration with Arab Strap singer Aidan Moffat. It drifts more gingerly than most Arab Strap songs, but the general feel is the same—Moffat’s deeply accented voice ruminating over a relationship gone sour. (If you need a starting place for Arab Strap, I recommend Philophobia.) The closing lines “And I should tell you that I adore you / But I’m sure that I’d just bore you” nail the mood of this particular song. It’s not as memorable or melodic as Moffat’s other Mogwai guest appearance on Young Team’s “R U Still in 2 It,” but it’s a nice warm-up.

The thirteen-and-a-half minutes of “Stereodee” close out 4 Satin with a very long, very loud bang. The first three minutes are the melodic build-up, a compelling combination of jangly chords and churning acceleration, but then the wall of white noise hits and sticks around until the twelfth minute, when an inexplicable dance beat emerges. If you’ve seen Mogwai—or any number of comparable post-rock or noise-rock groups—picture the song at the end of their set that closes with guitars-against-amp feedback as the members gradually leave the stage. That’s “Stereodee.” It’s a lot more viscerally exciting when your fingers are jammed against your ear drums in the rock club, trying futilely to maintain your hearing for the next day. At home you can just turn it off after five or six minutes, which is what I usually end up doing.

Finally, the fuck-ups. “Guardians of Space” is a grinding rocker with a repetitive riff and garbled vocals in the background. Think of it as a dry run for Young Team’s far superior “Katrien.” The alternate take on “Stereodee” doesn’t do the song justice. It’s three minutes shorter than the proper version, lacks the proper build-up to the white noise apocalypse, and overdoses on the flanger pedal for the intro guitar riff. I can’t fathom how angry Mogwai must’ve been when they found out both of these songs were in stores.

Provided you find the right version (or just bite the bullet and get EP +6), 4 Satin’s a rather rewarding side street in the Mogwai catalog. Two of these songs will reappear later in alternate versions (“Superheroes of BMX” on Government Commissions, “Stereodee” as “Quiet Stereo Dee” on Travels with Constants), but I prefer the versions here. All three songs are worth hearing, but “Superheroes of BMX” is the keeper.