It must be a shade over twenty years ago that I first heard Mogwai; a track called New Paths to Helicon on Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift that made me (probably only metaphorically) sit up and take notice at a time of night when I would otherwise have been drifting off to sleep. At the time, it sounded quite unlike anything I’d heard before: a melding of the dynamic shifts between quiet and loud of hard rock and grunge with early 90s shoegaze music’s love of experimentation with effects pedals, to achieve a trance-like effect which I imagine must be what others must have got from rave music a few years earlier. At that time, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term ‘post-rock’, I’d certainly never encountered any Dirty Three or Tortoise, though I think, had he had the money to go investigating entire musical genres off the back of a single track on a late-night Radio 1 show, my eighteen year old self would have loved it
And sure enough, their first couple of albums, Young Team and Come On, Die Young were regularly on my headphones as a student on those nights when my inability to get started on anything more than 48 hours before it was due in saw me stuck in the South Bridge computer labs until 4 in the morning (I think I might have mentioned this before when I was reviewing Endtroducing a few weeks back). But in the intervening couple of decades, I can’t say I’d really given Mogwai’s continued existence much thought. A former manager was keen and lent me Mr Beast a few years back but, while I can’t say that I didn’t like it, I never felt particularly inclined to keep going back to it.
Listening to Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, I can’t help thinking that the problem with Mogwai is that they really only have one ‘trick’ up their sleeve, and there’s surely a limit to how many albums of it anyone can really need to hear. My few days’ acquaintance with the record certainly didn’t leave me with the vague irritation that, say Vampire Weekend did a couple of weeks ago, but I can’t say I really remember any of the songs. There’s nothing on here as brilliantly simple as Mogwai Fear Satan from their debut, or even Glasgow Mega-Snake from Mr Beast. I am hardly the first person to observe that this record sounds like the sound-track for a film that just doesn’t happen to exist (though to be fair, they’ve done a couple of actual soundtracks for film and television that does exist: Zidane is if nothing else, more interesting than the film it soundtracks, an art-piece which is simple a 90 minute football match where the camera remains focused on the French star for the entire game: maybe it’s of interest if you’re a football obsessive, or maybe even then, it simply goes to show that there’s a reason that’s not how football matches are usually televised. I’ve heard Les Revenants is really good, but have never found the time to watch it,)
Listening to Rano Pano, or Mexican Grand Prix, I couldn’t help thinking that what separates so-called post-rock music from shoegaze, the fact that it’s almost entirely instrumental, counts against it. It needs vocals, and not just the heavily synthesized vocal chants that are hidden in the mix of George Square Thatcher Death Party (Was there one? I was out of the country at the time, and was informed of her death by, appropriately enough, by an SNCF employee who had guessed my nationality from the clumsiness of my French and was telling people that the trains were on strike – which struck me as fitting way to mark the occasion.) On the subject of which, writing entirely instrumental music does give the band a certain freedom to call their songs whatever the damned hell they like. Hence Oh How The Dogs Stack Up (though it’s not an experiment I’m minded to try at home)
Last year a rather more cultured friend of mine who pays attention to the programme for the International Festival took me along to a show called Flit, a musical performance piece with a ‘band’ made up of, among others, Mogwai’s Dominic Aitchison, Martin Green from Lau and Becky Unthank on vocals. And it sounded great: I could happily listen to Becky Unthank singing over a Mogwai backing track all day. But I’m not sure that I really yet another collection of seven or eight minute instrumental rock tracks. Because when it comes to post-rock, I think Mogwai just don’t have the range, the willingness and ability to experiment, of the best work by, for example, Godspeed You Black Emperor!