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Mogwai Discographied Part Seven: What Happened After the Storm

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.

Mogwai's Mr. Beast

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.

Mogwai's Friend of the Night

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?

Mogwai's Travel Is Dangerous

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.

Mogwai's Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

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.