Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Hawk is Howling - Mogwai

The Hawk is Howling

Matador Records.

SCQ Rating: 66%

Hype has never been good for Mogwai. Case in point: Mr. Beast, which was declared a masterpiece (by the band's management) before its release to middling reviews. Beyond its failure to live up to such a blistering, massive title, what was immediately evident with Mr. Beast and roundly panned was that the Scottish post-rock outfit was striving to compress Young Team-era explosions and sighs into four-minute intervals. That this exercise in economic songwriting succeeded more often than not is hardly the headline of choice for critics and fans who, ten years on, remain steadfast in their expectations of a Young Team II. The shadow of that debut is looming heavy on The Hawk is Howling, not only with Young Team's remaster issued mere months ago, but finding its producer, Andy Miller, at the helm for the first time since.

So Mogwai-followers the world over were likely surprised to read early reviews citing The Hawk is Howling as Happy Songs for Happy People II; the sequel to an album many viewed as Young Team's cousin, maybe three times removed. I can do one better. Consider the new record under this ancestral example: that at nearly sixty-five minutes and entirely instrumental, The Hawk is Howling is the great-grandfather of Mogwai's - and post-rock's - catalog. It's dense and brooding, it's sluggish yet occasionally volatile; like a man well past his prime, Mogwai's sixth album doesn't have much to say (senile song titles aside). Where Rock Action graced effortlessly between metal assaults and whispered balladry, or Happy Songs for Happy People proved itself independent of post-rock cliches, these ten songs reflect no dire state-of-the-union but, perhaps, Mogwai's least ambitious recording to date.

Even so, we're talking about Mogwai, the band accountable for a sound, distinctive yet ethereal, that no band could replicate without being declared rip-off artists. 'I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead' sets the tone with some lonely guitar and 'Auto-Rock'-esque piano that moves from haunting to epic at its own pace. With the gripping 'Batcat' hot on its heels, The Hawk is Howling, despite having a one-two punch insanely comparable to Mr. Beast's, looks posed to be Mogwai's next-best album.

Then... well, nothing really happens. There's no turning-point where momentum is suddenly dropped or the band reaches in vain for new direction. To make this lacking harder to translate, the record is surprisingly comprehensive, moving within a tight clan of moods with only 'The Sun Smells Too Loud' - an upbeat, good-vibe tune - standing out. It's one of the few attention-grabbing moments on record, and perhaps the keynote signifier of what's wrong here: production. Although headphones certainly help, The Hawk is Howling is a muddled affair, full of guitar squalls, organs and effects that, instead of weaving and interacting, sound like slabs of compressed noise. For every evocative track (the shimmering twilight to 'Kings Meadow', the gorgeous promenade of 'Thank You Space Expert'), there's a prolonged excursion into nowhere special ('I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School', 'Scotland's Shame') that, to Miller's credit, would still suffer from boring compositions regardless of an absentee producer. Why 'The Sun Smells Too Loud' might be a lantern for this critic's understanding lies not only in its ear-catching performance, but in the liner notes which state this as the only song recorded at their Castle of Doom studios, by longtime producer Tony Doogan. That's a difficult coincidence to rule out when the rest of the record, under Miller's care, sounds so washed-out.

Had Mogwai bought into those post-rock junkies still spinning Young Team and recycled that same quiet-loud formula instead of The Hawk is Howling's ruminative approach, they would be ushering in their career's second phase; that of a has-been act, content in the glory of past achievements. Instead, we hear the latest in a decade's worth of slow progressions - first, minimal dirges and electronic atmospheres, and now, a raw compromise of metal immensity and indie-romantic flexibility. Yes, Mogwai are still shifting in small artistic shuffles, but for the first time, they're letting old habits run the show. Long has post-rock been disparaged over its tired template, with a new Mogwai album managing to instill fresh blood into the discussion. Let The Hawk is Howling be a flood warning for our flagship band; these boys are treading water.

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