Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
(Rock Action/Sub Pop; 2011)
By George Bass | 15 February 2011
Mogwai’s seventh studio album is the product of a creative re-think, plus the fact that the members now work out of two separate continents. One of only a handful of post-rock groups to get less embarrassing while aging, Stuart Braithwaite and his antagonistic Glaswegians are like the Manic Street Preachers in reverse: angry, anti-pantomime, and talking forever less and less about dead ex-members. (OK, so Brendan O’Hare might not actually be dead, but the rest of band isn’t scouring his diary archives in the hope of finding new song lyrics.)
The last two Mogwai albums, however, allowed fans to spot a pattern: Mr. Beast (2006) and The Hawk is Howling (2008) appeared to be cut from identical templates, with the same piano buildup, the same guitar nuke on track two, and the same vaguely underwhelming aftertaste once the final track had exploded. Had Mogwai hired Dan Brown to be Head of Creative Continuity? Could there be a secret Word Document Assistant somewhere that only Stuart Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison, Martin Bulloch, Barry Burns, and John Cummings had access to—one which told them where to press shift, and when to bash the fuck out of the effects pedal?
If there is, then Mogwai have dumped it for Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, which sees them struck by the same telepathic enthusiasm members had when they first shaved their heads in tandem. It’s a visible jump from the Mr. Beast outline, and precisely the kind of digital revamp they needed after the angry formulae of Hawk. In fact, I’m not even sure most of it strictly qualifies as post-rock: once you get past the optimistic snaps of “White Noise”—which sounds like Sigur Rós being kicked into a drum kit the size of a theme park pyramid—the band drop “Mexican Grand Prix,” their biggest departure to date, and the one that’s had the all Young Team (1997) fanboys harumphing. Its disco glitch and neon thumping manage to sound both ’80s and medieval simultaneously, and despite the bass loops, church organs, and click tracks all clamoring for attention, it’s the resurrection of Barry Burns’ processed muttering that grabs one straight away. Yes, lyrics are back, though if you can make out anything bar the “keep running” mantra your ears are a lot sharper than mine are. “Mexican” is just the start of at least four genre facelifts, with the raucous biker rock of “San Pedro” writhing enough to keep non-bikers interested. “Pedro”’s grunts might be the steak and chips of the setlist, but Mogwai haven’t forgotten what they learned from Michael Mann: the sale is made in the detailing.
Aside from the experimental flourishes, the more recognizable material on Hardcore doesn’t suffer when compared to the new stuff. Mogwai can still make their guitars sweep like a lighthouse, and still know when to order those Rock Action (2001) droid voices to chirp at the onslaught of distortion. The droids get excused for “Rano Pano,” though, as all that’s needed there is a riff so fuzzy people in velcro could get snagged. It’s a boiling little thrash number with guitars so mean they could stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the dubstep kids. “Letters to the Metro” is its cleaner, scuffling twin, as well as my go-to sad song for weeks to come, as sorry as Jeff Buckley the night he went swimming. For this one, the band uses fragile, lofty piano to bridge one seriously forlorn drum beat, with Braithwaite’s guitar mewling so cutely you might want to attack it with hammers. These don’t feel like moods thrown in for variety, just natural switches in direction from a band whose tantrums help keep it in the press.
Perhaps, though, Hardcore is Mogwai’s first record to not need a pre-release spat. When it pines, it pines well, doing all the right chimes and right brooding, and when it kicks Sigur Rós, it kicks them well too. What it does even better is the new stuff, nearly all of which helps break the perceptible rut the band was in danger of entering. The likes of “George Square Thatcher Death Party”—lauded by the majority, played repeatedly by me—is a pep talk every motivational speaker dreams he or she could give, rocking ecstatically while Barry Burns howls like he’s just won Euromillions. Phyllida Lloyd, please please please can you earmark this while shooting The Iron Lady?
Even Mogwai’s sense of humor feels renewed as they sign off with the Spanish answerphones/Billy Corgan stunts of “You’re Lionel Richie,” which will hopefully attract more than just slander claims and encourage people to play side A again. Most people will anyway: Mogwai albums have always been inconsistent (there’s far, far too much love for “With Portfolio” and “Like Herod” from their debut), but Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will seems to be their most equable work so far. You can understand them releasing the remaster of 1999’s Come On Die Young as backup—twenty-minute monoliths are a rare treat these days—but if Mogwai are looking for new routes to explore then Hardcore is a strong first venture. And hey: kudos to them for breaking the formula, because with their profile it’d be easy to play safe and stubbornly stick to the straights. Right, Rivers Cuomo?