Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mogwai Albums from Worst to Best

I finally got my hands on a copy of Mogwai's Rock Action the other week, which means that I now possess all eight of the band's studio albums. This, together with the recent announcement that Mogwai will be releasing a three-disc career retrospective later this year, seems like a good excuse for a look back at the band's oeuvre so far.

Here, then, are Mogwai's albums listed in order of merit, starting with my least favourite 'Gwai record and ending with my all-time #1. Please note that this list only includes Mogwai's proper studio albums; no compilations, soundtracks, EPs, EP+6s, live albums, or other miscellanea will be included.

#8 - The Hawk is Howling (2008)
My least favourite Mogwai album is still pretty darn good (I particularly love The Sun Smells Too Loud, and I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School), but in general, it's just not as memorable as their best work. Even Batcat - the album's leanest, meanest moment - isn't as hard-hitting as Glasgow Mega-Snake or Rano Pano or Hunted By a Freak (comparable but superior tracks from elsewhere in Mog discog).

I don't doubt that Hawk is some people's favourite; after all, it's the only one with no vocal parts whatsoever, which I suppose makes it the only 'pure' Mogwai album of the eight. For me, though, that purity makes The Hawk is Howling feel kind of impenetrable - it could do with a Cody or a Blues Hour just to cut some steps into the mountain, y'know?

#7 - Rave Tapes (2014)
Never short of interesting but not as consistently thrilling as its predecessors, Rave Tapes is a strong set but not one that's essential to the Mogwai experience as a whole. It's good to hear them incorporating spoken word again (Repelish), and Blues Hour is a strong contender for the title of Best Mogwai Song with Actual Singing (although, ultimately, I think Cody beats it into a very respectable second place).

Other than those two songs, though, I don't know that Rave Tapes has any real standouts; it's a very solid release, but sadly not one of the band's most memorable.

#6 - Happy Songs for Happy People (2003)
This album is far more than just 'The One with Hunted By a Freak'. It's also home to the gut-busting Ratts of the Capital, the beautiful Stop Coming to My House, and the excellent Killing All the Flies, which I *think* was the first Mogwai track I ever heard.

Happy Songs for Happy People is far from the band's most immediate work, but there's a lot of beauty to be found in their exploration of the sounds they're able to make. Many of the album's tracks feature relatively little variation whatsoever (I Know You Are But What Am I? being the clearest example), but even when not much is happening, it's still nice to curl up and relax in the folds of sound that Mogwai create here.

#5 - Rock Action (2001)
Mogwai's third is a little on the short side (and its artwork remains the worst in their catalogue), but brevity can be a virtue, and this little power-pack of a record does rather benefit from the fat-free approach its creators elected to take. Sprawling centrepieces like 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong and You Don't Know Jesus are punctuated by shorter classics (like Dial: Revenge) and bite-sized interludes (like O I Sleep), resulting in a deliciously dynamic symphony that's perhaps the most cohesive start-to-finish experience in the band's whole discography. 

#4 - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
Hardcore surprised me when it came out: a vast improvement on The Hawk is Howling (by my reckoning, anyway), it's easily one of the most colourful records in Mogwai's repertoire, featuring everything from full-speed-ahead krautrock (Mexican Grand Prix) to dreamy keyboard bliss (Death Rays) to classic 'Gwai guitar menace (Rano Pano). Oh, and then there's George Square Thatcher Death Party, which - its provocative title notwithstanding - is probably the closest thing the band have ever written to a straight-up pop song.


Catchy stuff, no? It's a shame they vocodered the lyrics to gibberish, or it would have made for a great sing-along moment in Glasgow when Margaret Thatcher actually did die.

#3 - Mr. Beast (2006)
I suspect that my decision to put this album at #3 will ruffle some feathers amongst the Mogwai faithful (if indeed any of them read this), and admittedly, I may be unjustly biased towards Mr. Beast. I became a fan of the band in 2005, and they released the Beast only a few months later; I remember buying the CD not long after it came out, and I got my first electrifying taste of live Mogwai when the Mr. Beast tour rolled into Cardiff. I even had a Mr. Beast poster in my bedroom for several years, which allowed me to memorise pretty much every detail of that awesome album cover.

For these and other reasons, Mr. Beast feels very much like 'my' Mogwai album. Still, I'm sure I would hold it in equally high esteem even without all of these factors - how, after all, could anyone deny the overwhelming power of Glasgow Mega-Snake? Or the beauty of Acid Food and I Chose Horses? Or the fact that We're No Here is the best Mogwai album closer since Mogwai Fear Satan?

Mogwai Young Team (1997)
18 years on from its initial release, Mogwai's debut remains an utter rollercoaster of an album. Mogwai Fear Satan is still a monster of a closing track. With Portfolio is still, at its loudest, a spectacularly punishing listen. Like Herod is still one of the scariest pieces of music I've ever heard.

And yet the parts of Young Team that I really love are the nooks, the crannies, the pools of quiet that separate the thunderstorms of noise. The monologue that opens Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home. The twinkly melody and the worried telephone conversation in Tracy. Aidan Moffat's guest turn in the truly, truly beautiful R U Still In 2 It. These are the moments that give their parent album an overarching sense of rise and fall, light and shade, and they're the reason why Young Team is my second favourite Mogwai album of all.

As for my #1...

Come On Die Young (1999)
It's perhaps telling that my favourite parts of Young Team are the quiet parts. Those quiet parts took centre stage on the band's second album, Come On Die Young, resulting in a tense, atmospheric set that rather brilliantly stretches Mogwai's signature 'quiet then LOUD' approach over an entire album's worth of music.

Because, yes, there are loud ones - Ex-Cowboy and Christmas Steps are quintessential Mogwai moments - but damn if you're getting to them any time soon. This isn't Young Team, and you're not getting another Like Herod within the first ten minutes; instead, Mogwai build things up slowly, using lonely-sounding guitars and TV noise and telephone recordings to drag you deep, deep into this musical dark night of the soul.

That's why Come On Die Young is my favourite Mogwai record: it takes its time better than pretty much any other album I've ever heard, building a whole intricate world and then blasting it back to nothing at the very end. When Ex-Cowboy finally rides into town and the band start to cut loose, it's one of the most rewarding moments in the band's catalogue because it feels entirely earned.

That's not to say, mind you, that there's no payoff until track 9. Many of Mogwai's best moments are housed within the first act of Come On Die Young: May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door  and Cody are the obvious examples, beautifully sad as they both are, but I've also got a lot of time for Helps Both Ways, which moves gracefully over the top of some half-heard sports commentary.

Really, though, every track on CODY is crucial: more than any other 'Gwai album, this ominous, looming behemoth takes the listener on a journey, and if even one leg of that journey were to be removed, well, it just wouldn't be quite as thrilling.

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