It’s damn near impossible to discuss, let alone passively reference, the genre unfortunately tagged as post-rock without mentioning Scottish quintet Mogwai. By (mostly) eschewing a reliance on lyrics and instead focusing on the visceral and volatile results that can arise when one exacerbates the journey from tension to release, these purveyors of “serious guitar music” have ridden a steady wave of critical acclaim for nearly 15 years now. The band’s 1997 debut, Young Team, arrived at a time when post-rock’s namesake was under attack, just as acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Tortoise were building formidable reputations for shunning melody in favor of expansively textured soundscapes.
Thanks in large part to the movement’s 21st century revival – thank you, Sigur Rós – Mogwai has been able to retain their credibility through six studio albums and paved the way for a slew of imitators that include Explosions in the Sky and Pelican. All these bands are, in one way or another, indebted to Sonic Youth’s penchant for experimentalism and My Bloody Valentine’s shimmering layers of noise, but Mogwai remains perhaps the most adept at suffusing these qualities with the more accessible soft-loud-soft pop sensibilities of bands like The Pixies and Nirvana.
On the cumbersomely yet aptly titled Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, Stuart Braithwaite and his Glasgow counterparts continue their tradition of sprawling guitar-based compositions, taking the listener on a ride that tends to be alternately brooding and bittersweet. Raging levels of distortion have always played a central role in the architecture of Mogwai’s sound, but on Hardcore, the group balances out its most abrasive inclinations with tracks that possess the gentle ambience of a movie soundtrack.
The reaction to teaser track “Rano Pano” has been mixed, but for whatever it lacks in dynamic contrast, it makes up for with prickly layers of distortion, crystalline feedback, and ghostly guitar melodies that threaten to derail the song’s assured moderate rock groove. Though it also lacks a discernible change in decibel levels and boasts Mogwai’s shimmering wall of guitar fuzz, “Death Ray” distinguishes itself with moods that are more hopeful than harrowing, thanks in large part to the chiming melodies of keyboard player Barry Burns. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” is something of a New Wave revival; other than the bombastic performance from the rhythm section and the lack of lyrics, the tune could be mistaken for a tossed off Killers track.
The album’s other standout tracks exhibit more varied sonic terrain. The spooky “Letters to the Metro” soldiers forward on a foundation of doleful piano chords, yawning guitar lines, and understated set playing from drummer Martin Bulloch. The dulcet keyboard-led opening of “Too Raging to Cheers” would be at home on just about any Eno or Moby record, though the track’s gradual emotional ascendancy by way of simmering drones and clattering percussion shifts the vibe from comfortably passive to thoroughly agitated.
Though generally a triumph, the album has a couple cuts that feel unsubstantiated; the cathartic buzz of “San Pedro” stands out as one of Mogwai’s more aggressive moves, but the tones of urgency seem forced when things wrap up after only three and a half minutes. The demure introduction and hushed atmosphere of “How to Be a Werewolf” is at first intriguing, but it eventually escalates into a trite rock beat and unimaginative guitar leads that too closely mimic the rhythm of the bass and drums.
It’s been remarked that Hardcore is among Mogwai’s poppier offerings; four tracks clock in at less than five minutes in length, and prevalent use of diatonic chord progressions certain lend the album a rock-radio sort of familiarity. This accessibility is not to be understated, but it’s still the eight-minute closer, “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” that packs the biggest punch. Cheekily named after the singer who gave us such memorable gems as “Brick House” “All Night Long,” Mogwai presents a song that begins with ghostly ripples of dulcet guitar playing and concludes with all five bandmates lumbering toward the finish after an exhausting barrage of bombastic drumming and sludgy guitar playing. The final two minutes are particularly epic, aurally conjuring the same emotions as when the good guys end up getting annihilated in the climactic battle sequence of a movie.
Mogwai’s most devoted fanbase is likely to dish out platitudes about the band’s earliest work in describing their sustained cultural legacy, but Hardcore is just as plausible an indicator of their significance, reminding us that their music still carries relevance in 2011 as it did in 1997.