Ahead of Mogwai’s Liverpool Olympia date, Getintothis’ Matthew Eland reflects on a 23-year-long career and selects ten of the best.
This week sees the return to Liverpool of post-rock titans Mogwai, whose last appearance in the city was back in October 2014 at Camp and Furnace.
In preparation for this, we at Getintothis decided it would be a good time to revisit their back catalogue. In many ways it’s a thankless task; since their formation in 1995 they’ve spent the subsequent 23 years knocking out EPs, singles, studio albums and soundtracks. Slouches they are not.
Given the sheer volume of material, it’s inevitable that there’ll be some notable omissions here, but hopefully this list will reflect the breath of the band’s scope. ‘Gwai neophytes may be surprised to find that their preconceptions (boring post-rock! no words!) of the band are inaccurate, and long-term fans will find plenty to enjoy (and maybe disagree with) in the following list. Without any further ado…
10. Mogwai Fear Satan from Young Team (1997)
We could have begun with something from early compilation Ten Rapid, maybe even Ithica 27 ϕ 9. But where better to start than Mogwai Fear Satan from Young Team? The song still survives in their setlist, and many a Mogwai fan cites the sudden explosion of noise half way through as being the point at which they fell in love with the band.
Named after Dominic Aitchison’s childhood nightmares, the version of the song you may hear at the Olympia starts with shimmering, flickering guitar lines, which build in intensity as Martin Bulloch’s drums join in. The song plateaus and slowly diminishes until it’s just Stuart Braithwaite’s effects quietly echoing around the room. What follows is part telepathy, part time-worn instinct, and all explosive volume. A quick nod, a barely perceptible tom roll, and there’s a detonation of noise and distortion. Make sure you’re ready for this elemental display of righteous fury; many an unsuspecting punter has spilled a drink at this point.
It’s worth revisiting the original album version, in which Stuart’s guitar line is played on the flute. The lengthy outro meanders and stretches out in a pleasingly unfocused way, a trait often repeated in the band’s early work. It ends with Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style effect swells, and keeps toying with you up to the 16-minute mark.
9. CODY from Come On Die Young (1999)
For second studio album Come on Die Young, the band wanted to go back to basics, saving a lot of the volume for final song Christmas Steps. The result is an austere, atmospheric record, with fewer of the radio-friendly unit-shifters that would be a staple of their later career. As such, it’s something of a cult favourite among fans of the band. It starts with a recording of Iggy Pop’s 1977 CBS appearance overlaid with Slint-esque guitar picking, which is followed by this tune, an acronym of the album’s title (which is itself based on the name of a Glasgow gang, something of a recurring theme for Mogwai; see also, Young Team).
This is the band at their quietest, but with none of the resignation that sometimes permeates their later slow numbers. It also features vocals, which isn’t as much of a rarity as people think. It’s a vulnerable, 4am song, to be played when you’re resigned to the neighbour’s noise and to not sleeping; when you’re waiting for dawn and need extraterrestrial, reversed slide-guitar for company.
8. Sine Wave from Rock Action (2001)
2001’s Rock Action documents the sound of a band in transition. With keyboardist Barry Burns now a fully paid-up member, they began to experiment with synths and other electronics. It doesn’t quite fully hang together as an album – the Gruff Rhys track Dial: Revenge still seems like something of an oddity – but it does have 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong and Secret Pint, which still sound absolutely unimpeachable.
Pick of the lot is Sine Wave, with Burns’s vocodered vocals coming to the fore. Check out its haunting appearance in the ATP film, which is evocative of frozen chalets and windy, deserted beaches, as its hissing, mechanical beat builds up against an epilptic, strobing delay.
7. My Father My King single (2001)
Braithwaite has said that they had a wealth of material for Rock Action, but deliberately held back to distinguish themselves from Godspeed and their copyists, who were delivering records with very long running times. In retrospect, this was a mistake, one that the band tried to rectify with the release of My Father My King as a stand-alone single.
The result is stunning. Based on the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu, My Father My King stalks in with the same malevolence of Like Herod, but instead of sneaking up on you and jumping out, you can already see it in the corner of your eye, approaching. It builds and builds until it’s a searing cacophony. When you think it’s over, it starts again, like all the best movie serial killers. Its twitches and hypnic jerks fight against the silence, with the rapid eye moments of some relict, gargantuan nether-god awaking from a hundred millenniums of distempered slumber.
The recording captures the ferocity of their live assault, when all knobs are to the right; the product perhaps of working with Steve Albini, a producer we’re always surprised to find they haven’t done more with.
6. Hunted by a Freak from Happy Songs for Happy People (2003)
It’s sometimes difficult to account for the longevity of certain bands.
Some acts have one impressive first batch of tunes and fade away almost immediately. Others rise and fall, and exist for years afterwards on a plateau of releasing new albums to supplement the hits. So how have Mogwai, an act who were still finding their feet on their first four albums, stayed relevant and maintained the band as a full-time concern?
The answer is Happy Songs for Happy People. It’s here, on their 2003 album, that everything comes together. And it all starts with Hunted by a Freak. In many ways it’s an unassuming number, but further inspection reveals beguiling complexity. Those heavily vocodered vocals. That liminal, spooky guitar picking. Another live staple, Hunted by a Freak displays the group’s newly mastered use of restraint in their music. There’s a time and a place for noise – indeed, that comes in the middle of this record, with Ratts of the Capital – but this song shows that Mogwai know exactly when to deploy it.
5. Auto Rock from Mr Beast (2006)
Newly buoyed by the success of their previous album and fresh from building Castle of Doom, their new studio, Mogwai embarked on the recording of their fifth album. There was no small amount of hype behind it. Their manager at the time, Alan McGee, said that it was “probably the best art rock album I’ve been involved with since Loveless. In fact, it’s possibly better than Loveless”. This was probably a complicated dig at Kevin Shields, but nevertheless, it reveals something about the album’s scope. It’s possibly their most accessible and melodic collection of songs, and maybe their most atmospheric album (named after a sign the band saw a taxi driver holding at Florida airport).
Opener Auto Rock was used in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice remake; a reflection of the field they were playing in by that point. It’s vast and hopeful, and clear-eyed and steady at the same time. It’s one slow, steadily pounding drum beat with building guitars and electronics around a vintage Barry Burns piano riff. This cheeky little number is best paired with the robust attentions of Glasgow Mega-Snake to obliterate the palette.
4. The Precipice from The Hawk is Howling (2008)
This track closes Stuart’s least favourite album, The Hawk is Howling. For our money though, it’s their most underrated record. It was originally composed as a soundtrack to a film, but the filmakers fired the group when the unmastered output didn’t sound enough like Sigur Ros. I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead is the only track from this era to regularly make the live set, but the group have missed a trick in retiring The Precipice.
It’s another onimous, unsettling number, starting off slowly and building in urgency until the calm subtle piano lines have mutated into chugging distortion and meandering, anxiety-attack-inducing guitar riffs.
3. Rano Pano from Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
Following the release of Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will in 2011, Mogwai felt like a very big band. When they headlined the main stage at Primavera that year they had a huge crowd eating out of their hand, as they switched from motornik kraut-rock to epic instrumental with consumate ease. They also had occassional touring member Luke Sutherland assisting on vocals and violin, which added an extra dimension to their live sound, and surprised many who’d had them down as a boring instrumental band.
Rano Pano is emblematic of their sound at this point, and evocative of the record’s artwork: that of moody, sodium-lit cityscapes, of vast outlooks and large vistas. It combines digital, Michael Mann cinematics with the steady, measured power they cultivated in the Mr Beast era. Three guitars all joining an operatic riff one by one before being engulfed in fuzz, lead by a trademark understated Bulloch drumbeat as a counterpoint to the main melody, played with synthy, incandescent flourishes to leave retina ghosts blurring your vision.
2. The Lord is Out of Control from Rave Tapes (2014)
Rave Tapes is something of a patchy affair. Reading between the lines, it’s telling that founder member John Cummings left the group after this one; the mish-mash of styles hints at a lack of cohesion within the group. Advance single Remurdered had had fans salivating; a tense, palm-muted guitar line mixed with Errors-style electronics, culminating in a huge-sounding drop into empty space and pounding drums. It suggested that their lengthy flirtations with electronica had blossomed into a full-on sexy relationship.
However, this theme was not sustained throughout the album, and in another questionable move they left off the excellent Teenage Exorcists, opting to release it later as a single. In the album’s defence though, it does finish with The Lord is Out of Control; a funereal, elagic, slow-paced death-march into Saturn’s hexagonal polar storm, where your very DNA is eradiated and dissolved and swept out of all existance into the turbulent flow of frozen ammonia hail.
1. Don’t Believe the Fife from Every Country’s Sun (2017)
After Cumming’s departure, the band regrouped. They headed to upstate New York to watch horror movies and drink whiskey during a frigid, frozen winter. The result was Every Country’s Sun: an album with a cohesion not heard since Happy Songs for Happy People, with a warmth that belies the surroundings of its conception; an album that marries their Weekend Nachos side with their ambient work on the Before the Flood soundtrack.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Don’t Belive the Fife. It’s the point on the album when the distortion comes out. For half the song it’s all twinkling motes of light, laconic bass riffs, echoes in an interstellar well; then something catches, a melody emerges: a hopeful human pulse, breaking free from the dismal purgatorial depths of a dark, drifting eternity.
And then, the simultaneous rise of every country’s sun; synth-shoots break free and distortion blooms, propelled by the singular intent of Bulloch‘s drumming. Bulloch should return behind the kit at the Olympia gig; ill health forced him to miss the summer tour dates, and prompted worrying memories of 2008 when his pacemaker had “broken skin and infected the surrounding area”. It’s good to have him back.
At this year’s Primavera, Don’t Believe the Fife provided a moment of pure catharsis, and demonstrated that Mogwai are still delivering the goods, 23 years into their career. They’re set to level the Olympia and the surrounding environs up and down West Derby road on Thursday; don’t miss out.