The Hawk is Howling
By Christopher Alexander | 19 September 2008
Young Team turned ten last year, and those following the resulting reminiscences probably got the idea that Mogwai themselves cared little for it. It’s hard not to read this as the usual case of a masterpiece doubling as a creative milestone, but a quick examination of their subsequent five LPs (or LP-length EPs) suggests that, maybe, it just doesn’t sound like Mogwai. They almost never return to the ideas and themes of the debut, with the lone exception of “Like Herod,” and even then that track’s justly famous killer crescendo remains buried in the trick bag. What they’ve taken instead was that song’s Slint-esque modular riffing, heavy on tense minimalist guitars and letting the bass do the walking, if by walking we mean pacing, brow furrowed and more than a little paranoid. When the band decides to open the gates, like “Killing all the Flies,” “Christmas Steps,” or “You Don’t Know Jesus,” it remains as threatening as it had with the volume down. This is miles away from the soaring, clarion shifts of major-key, melodic pieces like “Yes! I am a Long Way From Home,” and while the band still uses those patterns occasionally it’s clear where their collective heart lies. The band can make music that feels like life itself is exploding, like you can see the raindrops feed the ground, but just as often you feel that you can see it because you’re an insect, waiting for the rain to pass, hoping the predator ignores you when it does. The hawk is howling, indeed.
Anyway. They hated Young Team‘s production, and they’re absolutely right; that record is almost unbearably tinny, with no presence whatsoever. The best way to hear those songs are through their BBC sessions, many of which are collected on 2005’s Government Commissions. So it’s surprising, then, that the band chose to work again with that album’s producer, Andy Miller. Many have argued that Mogwai never caught up to their debut, and perhaps they felt the same. While they can plainly be heard stalling on all of their albums, their only outright bad record is Rock Action, which still has two stone-cold classics in “2 Rights” and “You Don’t Know Jesus.” 2006’s Mr. Beast also has its share of clunkers but at least contains two excellent bridges to the future: finding common ground and camaraderie in doom metal and Japanese hardcore, “Glasgow Mega-Snake” and “We’re No Here” were the two most exciting Mogwai songs in years, rocking like a, um, beast. Surely the band didn’t want to look backwards after that, right?
The Hawk is Howling, in one aspect, is exactly the step backward I feared: they’ve essentially remade Happy Songs for Happy People (2003). This isn’t as terrible as it sounds because Happy Songs was where the band realized that, with three guitarists and an increasingly loud keyboard, their writing would only ever be as good as its timbre and tone. As a result both were dominant, and perhaps that’s what Miller understands better than their other producers. Either way it works: this album is far more consistent than either Mr. Beast or Young Team. “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” is a masterful opener, a far more impressive use of pedal point than the circular round employed in (the still pretty great) “Auto Rock.” “Local Authority” is their prettiest invocation of slow-core since “CODY” off Come on Die Young (1999), all tremolo Fender amps and Rhodes piano. The workhorses totally deliver, as well: “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” starts out with a beautifully melodic guitar line, only to be carried and wended to its inevitable climax, which the band teases at several times before the end is delivered—the kind of expectant push/pull one can only get with an attentive audience. The album’s last songs achieve a kind of sonic and harmonic satisfaction that only they can do: “The Precipice” has loud guitars shimmering in all the right places, and some of the unexpected ones. They even remembered to hang on to their metal tropes, as lead single “Batcat” totally refashions “Glasgow Mega-Snake” into a longer, meandering sludge factory.
There’s just one problem: “The Sun Smells too Loud,” a horrifying excursion into electronic-based blog-house that lasts nearly seven minutes. The band can marry electronic and wood instruments as well as most anyone (“Kids Will Be Skeletons,” aka the one from the Nike ad, would be my favorite example, even if now it just reminds me of runners in black and white slow motion), but just as often they fall on their faces, such as “Auto Food” or “Sine Wave.” Still, none of them were so bad or ill fitting as to completely demolish their parent album’s narcotic current, which is what happens here. It’s a shame, because otherwise The Hawk is Howling is an immensely satisfying, patient, and expertly crafted album that ranks among their best.