After taking the quiet-loud-quiet-loud-fucking loud template as far as they could, Mogwai consciously changed around the time of Rock Action. Brevity was the order of the day – 40 minute albums instead of sprawling 70 minute affairs, and four minute tracks instead of ten minute epics. Melody was given precedence over sheer might. Sure, there were moments of the old noise blitz, but mostly there was a sense of restraint. Enjoyable as their records were (and they’ve never made a bad one), there was something slightly insubstantial about them – as if the drive for a concise simplicity had become a self-imposed straitjacket that prevented the band giving free rein to their instincts. This was most apparent during their live shows where old tracks like “Helicon 2”, “Like Herod” and “Xmas Steps” remained the ones that tore the roof off.
The first thing apparent about The Hawk Is Howling is that the average track length is beyond six minutes. There are no songs as such – the vocoder has been mothballed, and everything is instrumental. So is it a retreat to Mogwai phase one by a band who have lost their way or a new chapter? Actually it’s neither. Like its immediate predecessors, melodies are to the fore – indeed much of the album has a pleasingly downbeat air. But tunes are given space to build and breathe. There are also a couple of instances when they return to the scabrous noise of yore.
“I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” (they haven’t lost their way with a title) bears absolutely no resemblance to the Doors. Starting with a lonely piano figure, it builds gradually into a grandiose finale, before burning out with spluttering feedback. Single “Batcat” is full on, almost thrash-tempo by Mogwai standards, with tons of rumbling bass and screeching high end a la Sonic Youth. It sounds fantastic – indeed this album is the best sounding record they’ve made. It has a real oomph to it.
The relatively downbeat “Danphe and the Brain” (is that a misprint on the sleeve?) has a guitar and bass sound reminiscent of the Cure’s Disintegration album. The wistful “Local Authority” is gentler still. One of the best tracks is also one of the least typical. “The Sun Smells Too Loud” is positively jaunty, with a sequencer throb and a clipped rhythm that points straight at the dancefloor. It sounds like the band have been listening to Rock Action signing Errors. It’s covered with guitar-fuzz, but has a hypnotically simple melody line. Mogwai go disco? Not quite, but not far off.
“Kings Meadow” is low-key and doesn’t really stick in the mind. The brilliantly titled “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” is defiantly old school Mogwai, building slowly to a deliciously noisy conclusion. “Scotland’s Shame” is another highlight – a track that proves that melancholic reflection and high volume aren’t mutually exclusive. With its funereal organ line, booming tom-toms and guitar squall, it sounds like a weird collision between Vanilla Fudge and Arvo Pärt.
“Thank You Space Expert” is another gem – an ambient-tinged ballad with a plaintive xylophone melody and a sense of epic yearning to it. From muted beginnings, album closer “The Precipice” builds to a joyously noisy and discordant finale.
As I said, Mogwai have never made a bad album. But they’ve never made a truly consistent one either. The Hawk is Howling is as close as they’ve got thus far. It’s more of a progression than a radical change, but at the same time has enough new ideas to suggest that there is plenty more to come from the wee gremlins. At least half the tracks are as good as anything they’ve done before, and the best bits are also often those that tread new ground. Initial copies come with a DVD that includes a film about the band directed by Vincent Moon and a couple of videos for “Batcat”. I’ve not yet given that a view.
1. I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead 6:44
2. Batcat 5:24
3. Danphe and the Brain 5:17
4. Local Authority 4:14
5. The Sun Smells Too Loud 6:58
6. Kings Meadow 4:41
7. I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School 7:33
8. Scotland’s Shame 8:00
9. Thank You Space Expert 7:53
10. The Precipice 6:41