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Mogwai Discographied Part Two: A Trance-Like State

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.

Mogwai's Young Team

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.

Mogwai's Kicking a Dead Pig

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.

Mogwai's Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes

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.

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