Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mogwai, "The Hawk Is Howling": a bit puzzling

Recently, a few Youtube clips from recent Mogwai shows renewed my buzz for their upcoming album. They'd retained their nasty RAWK edge from "Mr. Beast", but were indulging their prog tendencies by going more epic with a style that is part Sabbath, part Steve Hillage. I envisioned an album where "Glasgow Mega-Snake" was stretched and toyed with, where the three minute explosion on the record served as the conclusion to four or five minutes of buildup that led up to it. A record filled with "Ex-Cowboy"s, if you will -- "Come On Die Young: The Revenge", an album for people who thought that the first forty minutes of that album were boring and didn't pick up until the "Ex-Cowboy"/"Xmas Steps" portion (there were plenty of those people around in 1999). I'm not craving another "CODY" ("Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" already filled that role quite nicely, IMO) but Mogwai are long overdue for a few killer epic tracks. When it comes to the correlations between track length and quality in Mogwai's songs, their output has pretty much inverted itself over the past ten years. In the early days they were all about the eye-opening epic ("Mogwai Fear Satan", "Helicon 1", "Superheroes of BMX", "Stereodee", "Like Herod") but it's been years since they've delivered a truly memorable one. For example, "Ratts of the Capital" was one of the weaker tracks on "Happy Songs ...", and "Mr. Beast" didn't really have an epic track, save for maybe "We're No Here", which is again not even close to being the best track on that album.

"The Hawk Is Howling" does a lot of things halfway. It fills a halfway grey area between loud and soft, between epic and succinct, between melodic and freeform. None of long tracks are really that long, and none of them carry that "Mogwai Fear Satan"-esque emphasis that says "get comfortable because this is the big one". There are a lot of tracks in the six-to-eight minute range, and it's almost as if they kept hedging their bets them and weren't sure whether to let one of them really break out to prodigious lengths and dominate the album. Despite my initial hopes/impressions from the live shows, none of them follow the quiet/loud/quiet/loud ride that "Ex-Cowboy" does. The typical pattern is to build slowly and meticulously over the opening few minutes, eventually reach a plateau, and more or less maintain that plateau over the song's second half. Sometimes the journey is magnificent. "The Precipice" twists seemingly endless, Wagnerian melodies into fascinatingly detailed shapes. But large swaths of the album are devoted to wandering through anodyne, "CODY"-ish semi-ambiance without much in the form of an appropriate payoff.

So I'm not sure about this one yet, but Mogwai have always had a habit of not making things simple, haven't they?

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