It’s hard to keep a good band down, sure. And Mogwai’s a pretty good band. But who’s trying to keep them down? Certainly not me, no matter how disparaging my account of their ATP New York appearance a few years back happened to be. Theirs is a music comfortably ensconced in the niche of tried and true crescendo rock. Some would say they (if not Godspeed You! Black Emperor) are the reigning lords of the epic instrumental rock continuum. They’ve been around 15 years and have yet to release anything that wasn’t at least on par with their seminal work, Young Team. When all is said and done, both the impressive advance sales of Hardcore Will Never Die and the hallowed tones with which journalists address a new Mogwai album makes whatever I write here irrelevant. Their moody, muscled, ratchet-happy approach to making music is died and cast as can be.
And there’s something to be said for that. For an increasingly splintered, trend-happy, fickle climate, it’s good to know that there are people out there just going at what they do best and not trying to keep up with whatever the next big thing might be this second, on this blog, in that particular part of town. Mogwai aim to please their fanbase, and they do it here, even if they don’t put their best foot forward. And that foot would most certainly have to be the massive, creeping wallop of “Rano Piano.” After the anemic Krautrock and plodding, Coldplay-esque overture of the preceding tracks, the album is allowed to really get going on lucky number three. This is the Mogwai that commands, your “Glasgow Mega Snake” or “Killing All the Flies” or “Summer” type of highlight. It has that sweep that keeps you in the cut rather than trying to pin down what credit card commercial you are reminded of.
Which, unfortunately, is a nagging issue with a lot of recent Mogwai material — a sort of background-y, plastic, wallpaper-y patina that prevents the sort of immersion one desires from an instrumental record. Their sound has become somewhat complacent, despite what ground they broke with 2001’s more vocal-centric (not just vocodered) and all-around more enjoyable Rock Action. Like Trans Am, there’s a very digital feel to their newer stuff. Everything sounds compressed as though their jams have become a space-capsule version of the hearty meals they once specialized in. It may have something to do with keyboard tones they favor. Their crisp, wispy quality seems to undermine the wall-o-distortion guitar attack they do so well. But it’s more the overall tidiness of the production. Mogwai is still a niche band, but they present their warm and scenic melodies as if they were auditioning for ubiquity. The sound is now naggingly shrinkwrapped, even if it hasn’t changed all that much.
I suppose Mogwai fans might find all this reaching and beside the point. If you’re hitting the open road and chucking the past and just living your life, Hardcore Will Never Die will make a fine soundtrack. Its (mostly) gimmick-free, clear-eyed dreamer propulsion will buoy you. But if, like me, you’re looking for something a little deeper in an instrumental rock record and you don’t unrestrainedly sanctify this band, you may want to hold out till the next Do Make Say Think album.