For a few years in the late ’90s, Glasgow seemed like the center of the music world, and no band epitomized the grandeur of that scene quite as well as Mogwai, the instrumental quartet whose super-cerebral prog-goes-indie- goes-postmodernism-all-fucked-up-and-crazy will certainly keep potheads, acid freaks and weirdo math majors busy for years to come (“Dude, if you synch Young Team with Reservoir Dogs…). Often accused of being apolitical and amoral, the quartet proved ultimately to be a-controversial. With all the debate over the band’s mysteriously abstract philosophy, perhaps the harshest criticism ever leveled against the band was Stephen Malkmus’ legendary quip, “Mogwai will be the best band of the 21st century.”
Hyperbole, perhaps, but a strong case is made in the music, which began with the ’96 and ’97 singles collected on Ten Rapid but gained steam with the release of the band’s first full-length, Mogwai Young Team. An Everest of an album with no vocals save for the superfluous “R U Still in 2 It,” sung by Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat) and containing several instrumentals well over ten minutes in length, Young Team is a perfect vibration of catastrophic noise, Dionysian punk and skulking goth, restrained and intelligent enough to fill in the lines of apocalyptic glory manifest in the gap between the early cries of Sonic Youth and the last gasps of Slint. It’s prog- rock that is too progressive, post-rock that isn’t post enough, and there’s nothing at all revolutionary about Mowai’s approach (just guitars and drums). Nonetheless, Young Team and its remix companion, Kicking a Dead Pig, threw down a gauntlet to the rock fan: rock is not a galaxy, it’s a universe, and as the universe is infinite, so is rock.
The “Sonic Men” of Mogwai most fruitfully explore that infinity on the Dave Fridmann-produced Come on Die Young. All cheesy Star Trek references aside, Come on Die Young, sounding like the great album Low could never quite make, rivals Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and even Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in terms of scope and presentation. Again, Mogwai presents several tracks near or over the ten-minute mark of Sonic Youthish chaos and Lowly shoegaze, with virtually no vocals (except samples) that somehow never seem repetitive or mundane. The album makes it clear that Mogwai is the type of band that fringe-dwelling grad students will one day write dissertations on.
Rock Action, produced once again by Dave Fridmann and featuring instrumental contributions from David Pajo (Slint) and Matt Sweeney (Chavez) and vocals by Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), is another opus of meandering light and noise. Banjos and violins throw off petulant copy-cat bands, and guitarist Stuart Braithwaite emerges from the dreary catacombs of the band’s music to sing, thus giving the album a distinctly tempered feel without quite abandoning the jaded and depressed krautrock of its predecessors.
Happy Songs for Happy People continues this inclusive effort, without the star power of Rock Action. Another 40-plus-minute work that blurs the lines between rock quartet and symphony, Happy Songs explores the depths of the band’s abilities: the light parts are lighter than normal and the heavy parts are much heavier. Many of the songs (“Hunted by a Freak,” for instance) are more melodic than in the past; the noise and feedback are subdued in the background, and vocals are much more prevalent than the early days (“Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep”). Some songs rock with the best of them: the halfway point of “Ratts of the Capital” flirts with the sort of evil black metal most indie fans find childish.
EP+6 features vocals from Aidan Moffat, and the Mogwai/Bardo Pond split 10-inch was sold during a 2001 tour.