Mogwai – Mr. Beast

Mr. Beast

It’s remarkable that this fifth studio album also marks the 10th or 11th year of Mogwai’s existence. Remarkable in the sense that the five Scots have sustained themselves for so long, whilst remaining so stubbornly unchanged and so sonically untravelled. From day one to the present, their primary influences – Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Black Sabbath, and, of course, Slint – have remained ostensibly the same. Sure, they’ve stretched themselves a bit from time to time, flirting with strings and brass (on 1999’s excellent and economically-titled shortform release, EP), dabbling with electronics (especially on 2003’s Happy Songs For Happy People), and occasionally deploying vocals (notably on 2001’s Rock Action). But essentially, Mogwai’s largely instrumental body of work has been built from zig-zagging loud/quiet guitars, a gentle/heavy rhythm section, and plaintive/plangent piano figures – and Mr Beast really doesn’t screw with that intuitively drilled formula.

Certainly, part of the band’s durability is explained through external factors. The irascible Scotsmen have rarely stopped themselves from making a few choice media-attracting comments (baiting critics, slating easy-to-target corporate indie stalwarts like Starsailor). The group has made friends with some prominent tastemakers (erstwhile NME-scribe Keith Cameron once proclaimed them evangelically to be the “only punk-rock band left in the world”) and canny music industry svengalis (latterly with manager and former Creation Records supremo Alan McGee). Most crucially, they’ve been shrewd enough to surf the tides of fashion to their advantage, surfacing originally as an antidote to Brit-pop and the dying embers of grunge, going to ground when the post-rock backlash paved the way for the alt-country boom and resurfacing again recently just when the likes of Godspeed, Explosions in the Sky, and Silver Ray have made it hip again to have no singers. Thus, Mogwai has strategically swung back into orbit with a solid – albeit unadventurous – long-player, which refines instead of redefines and consolidates more than it innovates.

The opening – and aptly named – “Auto Rock” is an obvious Mogwai tune, steadily adding layers of distorting guitars, militaristic drums, and electro burble on to the top of an insistently memorable piano motif, until it reaches an anti-climatic conclusion that taunts any listener expecting a glorious eruption. “Glasgow Mega-Snake,” on the other hand, goes satisfyingly straight into a wonderful wall-to-wall mess of Sonic Youth-style six-string abuse. “Acid Food,” however, recalls one-time labelmates Arab Strap, with its robotic drum machines, laid-back pedal steel, and low-murmured vocals acting as a nice enough bridging piece, although it’s hardly a singer/songwriter-like statement. In its wake, “Travel is Dangerous” ratchets things up into a brutish MBV-meets-Bardo Pond mélange, with threatening vocals compressed beneath a dense wave of sound. The next trio of songs – “Team Handed,” “Friend of the Night,” and “Emergency Trap” – are more low-key and mournful affairs – largely driven by placid yet purposely keyboards – that would have sat well with the intermission-like pieces on the band’s still-listenable 1997 debut, Mogwai Young Team.

However, by the time of “Folk Death 95,” the amps are sizzling once more, to reach a rather routine crescendo. The penultimate track, “I Chose Horses,” brings things down to a shimmer, a hum, and a drone to cloak enigmatic guest vocalist Tetsuya Fukagawa – of Japanese hardcore outfit Envy – in eerie gentility. It would have made a fine closer, had it not been beaten to the finale by the frankly deafening “We’re No Here,” a hardcore sludge-fest that churns Mr Beast into an uncompromising ending.

So Mr Beast is Mogwai on auto-pilot: self-indulgent and safe but ultimately brutal and beautiful. We can forgive these musicians this time, on the proviso that they use their refreshed bravado to really push the envelope in future; otherwise, complacency could damn them to become the “Oasis of post-rock.” Now that would really be a beastly fate…