You’d have to admit, Mogwai are pretty damn consistent.
The Glaswegian post-rockers have been at it for over two decades, and over that time have pumped out an enormous amount of material. This isn’t the sort of band to pack it in and go on hiatus – they’ve managed to record a very respectable eight albums, four soundtrack (including their collaboration with Clint Mansell on The Fountain), two remix records, two EP collections, two live albums and one crushing collection of session work since 1995. Not bad for a band whose second album proper was called Come On Die Young.
Amazingly, there’s rarely a dull moment in their catalogue. While Mogwai have moved on from their ear-torturing early format, which set the pace for the then-burgeoning post-rock scene, they have managed to grow with their audience, experimenting with different sounds but never straying too far from the emotional core that made New Paths To Helicon shift eyes towards the band back in early 1997.
We’ve taken it upon ourselves to somehow whip the catalogue into order – from worst to best, or in Mogwai’s case, from least good to most stupidly good. Here’s to another 21 years, guys.
Mogwai will perform their Atomic soundtrack at Donau Festival in Krems, Austria, on May 1.
The Hawk Is Howling
(Wall of Sound, 2008)
Mogwai’s sixth studio album got a few harsh reviews from critics who take life much too seriously, but it’s true that by 2008 their early innovations in epic dynamics had been perfected to the point of feeling over-familiar, even innocuous. In hindsight, The Hawk Is Howling captures the band in the middle of an awkward pubescent phase, as they veer from preposterous devil-horned riffage (‘Batcat’) to synth-assisted sweetness and light (‘The Sun Smells Too Loud’, ‘Kings Meadow’) while evolving towards the demented drive-time of Hardcore Will Never Die (they are undoubtedly one of the best bands to listen to in the car). THTH also contains some of their best track titles – ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ is hard to beat.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
(Wall of Sound, 2006)
Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film captures one of the greatest footballers of his generation at the peak of his mercurial powers, as 17 synchronised cameras follow him up and down the pitch for nearly 90 minutes (until a brawl gets him sent off). Watching Zidane while he’s totally immersed in the game feels voyeuristic at first, but with Mogwai’s pastoral backdrop building gentle pathos, you eventually feel transported into his mind, however fleetingly. By the time you reach the tense final moments you’re right there with him, sweaty and seething, as the band descend into synapse-crushing white noise. It’s not the most memorable album taken on its own, so settle down to the movie instead.
A Wrenched Virile Lore
(Rock Action, 2012)
Mogwai’s second remix compilation A Wrenched Virile Lore follows the spidery set of guidelines set out by Kicking a Dead Pig, whereby the band line up a rogues gallery of experimental musicians to dip their inky fingers into the Caledonian well and see what happens. Sadly it’s not as seminal or as frankly bizarre as its predecessor, but it’s not without merit. Tim Hecker’s gloriously blown-out remix of ‘Rano Pano’ does exactly what a good remix should, keeping the familiar ring of the original but putting the emphasis in new places, bringing out a different form entirely. Main’s Robert Hampson extends ‘La Mort Blanche’ into a 13-minute shimmering epic, and horror fetishists Zombi turn ‘Letters To The Metro’ into a VHS-duped electro belter.
(Rock Action, 2013)
Now that the zombie epidemic as abated, it’s easy to pick out Les Revenants as one of the best recent takes on the enduring lore of the undead. The French series eschewed the leg-dragging stereotype for a subtler take on the idea of “the returned”, and Mogwai’s accompanying soundtrack underscores the chilly mood, giving you the feeling that thing are just a little bit off around here. The music was actually re-recorded for the album release, so super-fans should grab the DVDs for the original experience, but the LP includes a splendid cover of ‘What Are They Doing In Heaven Today’ by early gospel and blues singer Washington Phillips.
Mr. Beast emerged at an interesting time for Mogwai. The raucous energy of their early run had all but dissipated in the near-pop sheen of 2003’s Happy Songs For Happy People and they were entering a new chapter of their career, starting a run of film scores that would come to define the band’s next few years.
It’s not surprising. then. that Mr. Beast is so unashamedly cinematic. It was confusing at the time – fans who wanted a return to Young Team‘s fuzz and energy were disappointed (the monstrous ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’ aside), and fans who had warmed to Happy Songs For Happy People‘s vocoder-ed pop were left searching for hooks with no avail. Listening now, it makes a lot more sense – the album’s soaring, triumphant glow and backbone of piano worried those of us desperate for them not to make the same mistakes as Sigur Rós. Now we know they didn’t, we can just sit back and enjoy it.
(Rock Action, 2014)
By the time they reached their eighth studio album, Mogwai had been toying with synths for over a decade, but as the title jokes, Rave Tapes is one of their more obviously electronic records, with soaring drones and looping keys sharing equal weight with guitars on tracks like the rollicking, Battles-esque ‘Remurdered’, ‘Deesh’, ‘Simon Ferocious’ and ‘No Medicine For Regret’.
Elsewhere they loop back to Mogwai staples – a soliloquy about the hidden satanic messages in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on ‘Repelish’, guitar and the brooding walls of guitar on ‘Hexon Bogon’ sound pretty familiar. It’s a varied album, and not as focused as others in the latter half of their catalogue, but an out-of-place highlight is ‘Blues House’, a quiet-loud ballad where a well of noise opens up beneath Stuart Braithwaite’s murmured vocals, swallowing you whole.
(Rock Action, 2016)
Atomic is the most recently released album on this list, and perhaps it’ll be one of those situations where our bedazzlement will suddenly wear off and leave us wondering what all the fuss was about, but holy fuck, there are some whoppers on this one. The soundtrack to last year’s BBC 4 documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, an impressionistic journey through nuclear history from Hiroshima onwards, the music strays far outside Mogwai’s typical palette – from Geiger-esque synths on opener ‘Ether’ to watery electronics and perhaps the faintest hint of Drexciyan electro on ‘U-235’ – but it’s magnificent.
Even heard as a standalone album, the knowledge of the mushroom cloud horror it was designed to accompany is enough to make the hairs on your arms stand up – and it bodes pretty well for the next two decades of Mogwai.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
(Rock Action, 2011)
The band’s seventh album is the most perfectly formed from their second decade in action, and sees the Scotsmen sailing forth on ever-extending organ drones and even a hint of motorik drive on tracks like ‘Mexican Grand Prix’, ‘Rano Pano’ and the clairvoyantly titled ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. It’s their best album for the car, and it’s also packed full of what virtually amount to sing-along songs in the Mogwai canon, with vocals courtesy of some distorted robots (several guest singers).
More than any other album in their catalogue, Hardcore… is proof that Mogwai never took themselves as seriously as so many of their overly earnest progeny. Any sucker with an effects pedal can do “epic”, but it takes something special to write a tune you’ll be humming all week.
Kicking A Dead Pig
(Eye Q, 1998)
You have to put it in context to understand how unexpected Kicking A Dead Pig was at the time. Mogwai were, for all intents and purposes, a “guitar band”, and while plenty of rock bands had remixes attached to singles before (mostly to spread the single over a number of formats – a couple of CDs, a tape and a 12” – to make more money), it wasn’t often you saw a sprawling double-CD remix album with this kind of scope and a complete disregard for commercial viability.
Mogwai didn’t opt for hip names, either, they simply asked a bunch of their mates and people they were excited by: Birmingham techno don Surgeon, Planet Mu boss Mike Paradinas, D&B outsider Klute, Atari Teenage Riot founder Alec Empire, My Bloody Valentine, Hood, Arab Strap and more.
As you can probably guess, the results are strange and exhilarating. Surgeon’s mix of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ sounds like a kettle boiling for six minutes, Third Eye Foundation’s rework of ‘A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters’ is a soundtrack to the end of the world (with the occasional stuttering break) and DJ Q (the other DJ Q) turns ‘R U Still In 2 It?’ into a Chicago-esque house sizzler that still sounds bizarrely fresh.
Happy Songs For Happy People
Happy Songs For Happy People saw a more restrained Mogwai, the thunder and fury of their earlier years dialled back into a calmer fog. ‘Hunted By A Freak’ opened the 2004 release as it meant to go on: a slow creep of crisp Slint-ish guitars, layered with shapeless vocoder vocals, cello and drama.
Elsewhere, the warm, drifting ‘Boring Machines Disturb Sleep’ and ‘Stop Coming To My House’ hinted at their soundtrack-composing future ahead, while ‘Golden Porsche’ was a reminder that Mogwai are specialists at sweet as well as sinister and introspective.
Some critics and fans missed the bluster of old, and dismissed Happy Songs as too slick, too nice. But the humorously-titled Happy Songs For Happy People poking fun at their reputation as post-rock miserablists (seriously, we could do a feature ranking their wryest song and album names, forget the music) 12 years on remains our most melodic glimpse into the Mogwai machine, and a still-chilling listen.
15 years after its release, Rock Action still sounds like the work of a completely different Mogwai. Quiet and assuming compared to the relative bombast of Young Team and Come On Die Young, Rock Action has more in common with the confessional songs of fellow Scottish miserablists Arab Strap than their US contemporaries. The Welsh language appearance of Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys on ‘Dial: Revenge’ is one of its many bittersweet moments, best encapsulating the album’s overriding feeling of being trapped in a grimy bedsit with only your thoughts for company.
The marked shift on Rock Action disappointed a lot of fans who wanted a repeat of their first two albums, but looking back, it’s the tightest and most human of the band’s LPs. At eight tracks long (two of which are just a minute in length), it’s completely free of the flab found on some of their later efforts, with the industrial textures and introspection of ‘Sine Wave’ and folk-inspired dirge of ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ balancing the bleak and the beautiful.
Fans of the band’s louder material will gravitate towards the noisy familiarity of ‘You Don’t Know Jesus’, but it’s the triumphant crescendo of ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ that’s the album’s true centrepiece, a nine-minute epic that shows the band at their uplifting best.
(Chemikal Underground, 2000)
A collection of three EPs, EP+6 shows just the kind of creative tear Mogwai were on in their early days. It centers around 1999’s EP, adding tracks from 4 Satin and No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) to round it off, and like Ten Rapid before it, shows another dimension to the band.
It might lack the expertly-paced flow of Come On Die Young, but EP+6 contains so many classic Mogwai moments that you quickly forget how jarring the transition is between 1997’s noisy, discordant ‘Stereodee’ and the comparatively downbeat (at least initially) ‘Xmas Steps’.
‘Stanley Kubrick’ is among the band’s most haunting, cinematic moments, hinting at their eventual secondary career as movie composers. Opener ‘Superheroes of BMX’ also hints at a later direction, blending the band’s unmistakable riffs with the tinny pulse of a drum machine and haunting, heavily effected drones. It’s moments such as these that sit at the heart of Mogwai’s sound – their willingness to toy with the formula is the reason they didn’t implode after a couple of records or carry on re-writing ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ year after year.
Come On Die Young
(Chemikal Underground, 1999)
Come On Die Young is the sound of a band truly settling into their skin. More developed and confident than its excitable predecessor Young Team, the album is slow, reflective and melancholy – you get the sense that Mogwai were wordlessly commenting on the last few years of touring, drinking and turning up to 11. This is never more evident than on the album’s calm opening track ‘Punk Rock’, which offsets the band’s slow, chiming guitar tones with a sample of Iggy Pop talking about “trashy old noise” in 1977.
The album was seen as somewhat disappointing when it was released, mostly because it sounded so different – in the face of stiff post-rock competition from the likes of Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai had returned to eye the throne with an album that didn’t so much shout as whimper.
Looking back, this reluctance to play to type is what makes it so successful – Mogwai have never felt the need to pander to fans or critics, and listening with fresh ears, Come On Die Young is every bit as invigorating as Young Team; it’s just different. On ‘Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia’ and ‘Kappa’ they sound like a grizzled old band looking back on a life of constant performance, with time dilated through a thick cloud of smoke – it’s hard to believe they were only on their second album.
(Rock Action, 1997)
We know, it’s a big fat cliche to give the “yeah, but did you hear their first demos? DID YOU THOUGH?” line, but Mogwai’s early run was pretty bloody special. Ten Rapid hoovers up their essential inaugural tracks, giving insight and context to their sound, as well as showing the band at their most raw.
This is where Mogwai’s influences are truly revealed: we hear Slint in the plaintive riffing and deadpan vocals of ‘Angels Versus Aliens’ and ‘A Place For Parks’, Sonic Youth in the wheezing noise of ‘I Am Not Batman’ and ‘Helicon 1’, and the Chicago set in opener ‘Summer’ and ‘Ithica 27Φ9’. Through it all, though, the band’s unmistakable Scottish sense of humor oozes through the cracks, lightening the mood – no mean feat in a genre as traditionally po-faced as post-rock.
In the mid-90s, Mogwai slotted into a scene alongside bands like Long Fin Killie, Urusei Yatsura, The Delgados and Arab Strap – bands that took a DIY approach to indie rock, and jumbled a formula that was becoming increasingly formless. Ten Rapid captures the young lads before they’d streamlined their urges, and is possibly their most honest, revealing record of all. On top of that, ‘Helicon 2’ might be the most unashamedly beautiful thing they have ever recorded.
(Chemikal Underground, 1997)
The jewel in Mogwai’s leaden crown, Young Team is possibly their most perfect statement. It’s an expertly sequenced voyage into the mind of a young band experimenting with a sound that was still fresh, and it sounds just as powerful as it did back when the idea of a new Labour government filled us with hope that things were indeed going to get better.
At the time, the band were often shrugged off as Scottish Sonic Youth or Slint copyists, but there’s far more to the record than pastiche. Mogwai took the melodic substance of Slint and anchored it in a wash of cinematic grandeur. And sure, Sonic Youth had approached this style on ‘The Diamond Sea’ (the epic 20-minute finale of 1995’s Washing Machine), but Mogwai streamlined it, trimming the fat to emerge with something urgent and – more importantly – fucking loud.
At the time, their live shows were a sight to behold: a crushing, tinnitus-inducing assault on the senses where songs didn’t so much begin and end as blur into a single mass of noise, harmony and awe. Young Team is assembled in largely the same way as it builds from the relatively serene ‘Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home’ into ‘Like Herod”s start-stop assault, peppering the progress with quirky oddities like ‘Radar Maker’ and the noisy ‘With Portfolio’ (okay, we’ll admit it – THAT was a Sonic Youth trick).
After Mogwai’s cheery wave to then label-mates Arab Strap on ‘R U Still In 2 It’, the album ends on its grandest statement – long-time fan favorite and the band’s unofficial anthem, ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’. In many ways, the 16-minute monsterpiece is an albatross around Mogwai’s neck, used when anyone wants to berate the “quiet-loud” formula of late ‘90s post-rock, but that’s a bit like poking fun at ‘Yesterday’ for being too catchy. When something works, it just works, and ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ works harder than Rihanna at a job fair, finishing the album on a high note that lifted Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky and damn near every other post-rock band that followed. Yes, it’s that good.