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Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling

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Artist: Mogwai

Album: The Hawk is Howling

Label: Matador

Review date: Sep. 18, 2008

Mogwai is synonomous with dynamic shifts in the same way that My Bloody Valentine has been equated with guitar distortion or Sonic Youth with alternate tunings. It’s the reliable element, the brand, the one thing that everybody knows about Mogwai: if it’s soft now, it’ll be loud later and vice versa. It’s not a bad schtick, and they’ve turned lots of people on to the power of the big surge. Chris Martin of Kinski once told me that his band only really started fooling around with dynamic shifts after touring with Mogwai - and they are not the only ones to have been influenced.

But, let’s face it: to be defined is to be boxed in. Even if you’re defined by being sonically unpredictable - for spinning out grand cinematic meditations one minute and blitzing the guitars the next - people always expect you to be a wild card in the same way. At some point, you must get sick of delivering the goods. All of which is a roundabout way to say that there are not as many ripple-to-a-tidal-wave moments on this sixth Mogwai album. There are soft songs. There are loud songs. The shifts mostly come between tracks, not within them.

And yet, there is a definite dialogue between delicacy and power, serenity and angst raging in the songs. You can hear a distant roar of distorted guitar behind even the pensive piano notes of "I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead," perhaps the album’s quietest track; it isn’t loud, but it could be. On the other hand, snarling, spitfire "Batcat" is all multiple guitar’d fury, as rock as it can be. Still, there’s a meditative-ness in the way the song circles its central riff, moving forward, doubling back, repeating, until even the distortion sounds calm and centered.

These are the two extremes, but over and over, you hear Mogwai slipping transcendence into its rock, rock into its endless vistas. There’s a density even to the most somber moments, layers of altered guitar, keyboards and ponderous bass working in subtle combinations. "Scotland’s Shame," near the end of the album, is all shivering, shimmering textures - organ, multiple washes of guitar. Glacially paced, with tones stretched out over measures, it might seem to a casual listener as if nothing much was happening. And yet, take any bit of the song after the drums come in, and you can easily identify three or four different musical ideas going on at the same time, the wah wah-distorted guitar, the steady melodic progress of organ, the big watery washes of sound, the subterranean growl of bass. Although the song never crests into full-on rock, it does build drama and complexity over its eight-minute length.

These are mostly fairly slow, heavy songs, cinematic in scope, built on repeated riffs, and not especially tied to conventional song structures. The main exception - and there seems to be an exception to everything you can say about this album - is "The Sun Smells Too Loud." This song, coming about halfway through the album, is so light and buoyant and melodically catchy that you might find yourself singing along. It’s not what you’d expect of a Mogwai song, but it’s there and no less enjoyable for being unanticipated.

The dynamic shifts are natural attention-getters. On past Mogwai albums, sudden crescendos would grab you out of the tranquil interludes, and force you to listen closely. There’s not as much of that on The Hawk Is Howling, so it’s easy to let the album slip by unexamined. Still try and pay attention. This one is subtle, but very much worth exploring.

By Jennifer Kelly

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