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Mogwai

Formed in and around Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, MOGWAI (no, not that wee furry film creature) have been in circulation since 1995. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite (also of little-known ESKA), bassist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch, flouted convention in many respects, creating quite a stir with their 7”ers `Tuner’ and the double-whammy NME Singles Of The Week, `Summer’ and `New Paths To Helicon’.
By ‘97, MOGWAI had signed to the suffocatingly hip locally-based Chemikal Underground (also home to BIS and Falkirk chums ARAB STRAP); their first release being `The 4 Satan EP’. That summer, the new 5-piece MOGWAI (complete with John Cummings and former TEENAGE FANCLUB member, Brendan O’Hare) alternately bludgeoned/charmed the NME tent at Scotland’s premier T In The Park festival, courtesy of their striking hybrid of SONIC YOUTH, KING CRIMSON and pre-`Blue Monday’ NEW ORDER!
The feverishly anticipated “proper” debut album, MOGWAI YOUNG TEAM (1997) {*9} was released to rave reviews, while it also scraped into the Top 75. Stunningly dynamic, the record shifted seamlessly from tranquil, bleakly-beautiful soundscapes to brain scrambling white noise and sledgehammer riffing. Prime examples were `Like Herod’, `With Portfolio’ and `Mogwai Fear Satan’, while `Tracy’ was a near 10-minute collage of drifting, childlike charm segueing into a taped phone conversation; another track `R U Still In 2 It’ featured the mumbling vocal talents of ARAB STRAP’s Aidan Moffat. Prior to the record’s release, O’Hare was summarily dismissed, apparently for yapping his way through an ARAB STRAP gig (tsk, tsk!).
1998 was indeed a busy year for the “young team”, five releases hitting the shops between March and August and nearly all making the Top 75.
The first of these, `….. Do The Rock Boogaloo’ was a split affair with fellow indie noise-mongers MAGOO, the title not an EP, but the “un”-covering of two classic BLACK SABBATH tracks, MOGWAI having a laugh via `Sweet Leaf’. `Fear Satan’ was then chosen for the remix treatment (MY BLOODY VALENTINE’s the highlight), while a full album KICKING A DEAD PIG (1998){*7}, was all their best tunes re-worked by others including ARAB STRAP, KID LOCO and ALEC EMPIRE. Chemikal Underground put their two-penn’orth in by issuing the `No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew)’ ep, while TEN RAPID (1998) {*8} was a collection of now rare early singles.
The following March (with newcomer pianist/multi-tasker Barry Burns now a fully-fledged member), COME ON DIE YOUNG (1999) {*9} was the gangland war cry they chose as the title of their more sedate second album proper. A hard album indeed, in the sense that it took time to “get into” (probably due to the slight omission of their characteristic sonic crescendos), it unearthed a softer, more delicate style, which was rewarded with a Top 30 entry. Opening with `Punk Rock:’ (complete with IGGY POP archive interview as voiceover), the slo-fi `Cody’ and the sludgedelic `Help Both Ways’, the album proved the young MOGWAI were top of the class; `Ex-Cowboy’ and the emotional MORRICONE-inspired finale `Punk Rock / Puff Daddy / ANtICHRISt’ were also noteworthy. Towards the end of the year, they delivered a self-titled EP, attributing `Stanley Kubrick’ as the lead track.
Perhaps the best career move a band of their status could make, ROCK ACTION (2001) {*9}, saw MOGWAI reach new musical heights with their first release on their own Southpaw imprint. The album, named after the band’s other record label, focused its attention on the subtler side of life. It gladly took inspiration from the David Pajo school of experimental rock (he also appears on the set), evoking his recent PAPA M meanderings. With its harmonic use of banjos, lap-steel and orchestra, the album harked back to the aforementioned `Kubrick’ EP. `Sine Wave’ was briefly melodic, with hints of warped guitar static and Bulloch’s tom-toms adding an abrasive edge to the mix. `2 Rights Make A Wrong’ is quietly SLINT-ish, with the off-kilter signature tune thrown in for good measure. But it’s `Dial: Revenge’ (with SUPER FURRY ANIMALS vocalist Gruff Rhys) which makes the album more than worthwhile. His lingering Welsh vocals proved to be a catalyst for the overall structure, and the emotions that surface during the intensified verse-chorus-verse of the song.
Preceding the album by a few weeks was an unusual and unique appearance at Rothesay in the Isle Of Bute for 500 fans lucky enough to get the “golden” tickets. The Glaswegians crowned 2001 with their most ambitious arrangement to date, a 20-minute long… er, single, inspired by a Jewish spiritual and produced by Steve Albini; if that sounds an unlikely combination, be assured its skull-crushing crescendo is old time religion, MOGWAI style.
HAPPY SONGS FOR HAPPY PEOPLE (2003) {*8} marked a slight departure for the band, downsizing on the “rock action” front. As MOGWAI albums went, this was certainly their weakest and most over-produced, but it was still bloody good! The solemn funereal pace of `Moses? I Amn’t’ was something to make the late great JOY DIVISION proud; the riff at the end of epic `Ratts Of The Capital’ was pure grunge, and the chiming, symmetrical piano and programmed rhythmic structure of `I Know You Are But What Am I?’ was the band entering AERIAL-M territory. Elsewhere there was more fun to be had via the romantically-inclined `Golden Porsche’ and the signature-like opening track `Hunted By A Freak’ – even the vocoder vocals! Happy songs for happy people? Happy MOGWAI fans in the knowledge that they had made another great album, more like.
The band’s close relationship with the late John Peel was poignantly highlighted on GOVERNMENT COMMISSIONS: BBC SESSIONS 1996-2004 (2005) {*8}, a timely round-up of live-in-session epics released only a matter of months after Peely’s unexpected passing.
Fifth album proper, MR BEAST (2006) {*7}, was once again hailed as a minor masterpiece, and touted as a return to the glacial simplicity of the early albums. They must have been doing something right, with `Friend Of The Night’ even cracking the charts, their first ever to hit the Top 40. Bookending it on the album was the cumulative, MICHAEL NYMAN-esque opening track `Auto Rock’ and rib-splintering `Glasgow Mega-Snake’, paralleled by the penultimate `I Chose Horses’ (a cinematic haiku featuring Tetsuya Fukagawa) and closing dirge, `We’re No Here’.
ZIDANE: A 21ST CENTURY PORTRAIT (2006) {*6} was MOGWAI’s move into the world of film soundtracks, albeit through the eyes of French football legend Zinedine Zidane – not particularly known for head-banging – then again!? A couple of so-lo-fi numbers, `Black Spider’ (an outtake from “Rock Action”) and `Terrific Speech 2’ opened up their “Zinematic” account, while `Wake Up And Go Berserk’ created a lightly-tinted sonic screech that mellowed-out with finger-plucking guitars and lilting keyboards. Reprising `Terrific Speech’ for track 4, MOGWAI matched past glittering glories like `Summer’ and `Cody’. Lasting just over five minutes(!), chilled-out track `7:25’ (an outtake from their sophomore set), led into the appropriately-titled `Half Time’, a slow-shifting, stirring and sensitive work – much like the man Zidane himself. MOGWAI continued the soundtrack spree by complementing Clint Mansell (ex-POP WILL EAT ITSELF) on his 2006 score to The Fountain movie; meanwhile, Aitchison moonlighted with Joe Volk’s indie supergroup, Crippled Black Phoenix.
THE HAWK IS HOWLING (2008) {*7} created a similar pattern to its predecessors: cathartic and brooding to intense and climactic; example the rather morbid instrumental opener `I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’. As if on hearing a ROBERT FRIPP mash-up with METALLICA, track 2 `Batcat’ explodes into full incendiary aplomb, while it was all quiet on the Western front for follow-on slice of peace-pie, `Danphe And The Brain’. Ditto the TORTOISE-esque `Local Authority’. Thematic and almost made for STV programmers, instrumental number five `The Sun Smells Too Loud’, while `Scotland’s Shame’ was equally funereal and dramatic.
Following on from a embracing live-in-Brooklyn double-disc, SPECIAL MOVES (2010) {*7} – comprising all their best-loved and longest cuts, MOGWAI’s first set for Sub Pop, HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL (2011) {*8} was unleashed.
Reuniting with “Young Team” producer Paul Savage, the group had lost none of their moody and melodic majesty; opener `White Noise’ was sprawling yet sombre and a template for others such as the head-banging-in-a-padded-cell-like `Rano Pano’ and the SONIC YOUTH-ish `San Pedro’. On either side of a night’s boogie-ing, one could imagine dancing to the KRAFTWERK-like tones of `Mexican Grand Prix’ and waking up to `Letters To The Metro’; `George Square Thatcher Death Party’ took the mantle of Glasgow glam and NEW ORDER to new extremes. Saving the best for last (if you don’t count the bonus, 23-minute reprise by way of `Music For A Forgotten Future’), `You’re Lionel Richie’ raised the bar again – at least for a few more drinks – although without the ex-Commodore! Noted for their rather cerebral EPs, MOGWAI subsequently surfaced with their most neo-classical of efforts, `Earth Division’; check out all four pieces: `Get To France’, the folky song `Hound Of Winter’, the swarming `Drunk And Crazy’ and the cinematic strains of `Does This Always Happen?’.
On the back of an almost obligatory remix set, A WRENCHED VIRILE LORE (2012) {*6}, and without a French lesson in sight, the mighty MOGWAI meisters took on the score to Gallic zombie TV series, LES REVENANTS (2013) {*8}. Unlike their aforementioned soundtrack paean to the great Zidane several years back, the Scottish, er young team, brought their own lilting and ghostly echoes of the undead; `Hungry Face’, `The Huts’, `This Messiah Needs Watching’ and the TANGERINE DREAM-esque `Modern’, prime examples. Very much in the mould of past MOGWAI albums, short-ish tracks always seemed to lead up the garden path to nowhere, with the expectation of a “Like Herod” crescendo – but that was the Mogs, frustrating but resolute. Out of place, although a refreshing break from the norm, Stuart’s countrified vocal piece, `What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?’, is the longest slice at nearly 6 minutes. There’s nothing scary here, just a bit foggy as depicted on the cover sleeve.
Prolific as ever, MOGWAI reverted to type on their band-by-numbers umpteenth set, RAVE TAPES (2014) {*8}. Their highest chart return by far (Top 10 in Britain/Top 60 in the States!), Braithwaite and Co play it safe on usual suspects: “narrative info” dirge (`Replenish’), a Stuart song (`Blues Hour’), headshaking monster-beat (`Master Card’), digital code breaker (`Simon Ferocious’) and others – from `Heard About You Last Night’ to the voxbox-high `The Lord Is Out Of Control’ – performed meticulously straight from the fridge/freezer compartment of the studio. But somehow it all works well after days thawing out on one’s turntable, reaching parts of the brain other bands fail to reach.
Featuring the complementary grind of `HMP Shaun William Ryder’ and opening “song” `Teenage Exorcists’), 2014 concluded with the atmospheric EP, `Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1’. A different score of sorts was applied to the soundtrack of the Mark Cousins documentary, ATOMIC (2016) {*7}, a Top 20 record concerning the murky powers that be of the modern nuclear age. Growing dramatically with each sweeping chord, the sonic soundscapes of `Ether’ was the crescendo climax opening gambit, whilst the post-rock template of the TANGERINE DREAM-like `Weak Force’ was well-named. But for the eerie visuals adhered to on `Little Boy’, the set had a sense of déjà vu plastered all over it, with the exception of the Empire-building, emotion-fuelled `Fat Man’ and `Bitterness Centrifuge’.
Meanwhile, finding his feet through a shoegazing crystal ball, Braithwaite supplemented his income a tad by teaming up with SLOWDIVE’s Rachel Goswell and EDITORS’ Justin Lockey (and his brother James) to finally unveil the eponymous MINOR VICTORIES album.
© MC Strong 1998-2008/LCS-AS // rev-up MCS Apr2012-Jul2016

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