Mogwai improves the formula on ‘Every Country’s Sun’
Daniel O'Boyle | Tuesday, September 5, 2017
“Coolverine,” the first track on Mogwai’s latest album, “Every Country’s Sun,” has a lame pun for a title.
It’s built around a fairly simple musical theme, essentially just eight notes. It starts quiet, builds up, lets you down just a little and then turns into something grand and all-encompassing — all within a little over six minutes. It’s more serious about the “rock” part of the post-rock genre than the work of Mogwai’s peers, with slowly-building distorted guitars and and an aggressive drum beat providing edge, all while remaining first-and-foremost an atmospheric work. It’s a song that could make anything you do sound cool.
In short, it’s a Mogwai song.
“Party in the Dark,” the very next track on the album, is not.
Mogwai — formed in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1995 — more or less perfected their sound in 1997, with the release of post-rock masterpiece “Mogwai Young Team,” a work with a very legitimate case to be considered the greatest album the genre has produced, creating beautiful sonic landscapes while holding onto the energy that only youth can provide (frontman Stuart Braithwaite was barely 21 years old when the album was recorded). From there, the band released another seven albums before “Every Country’s Sun.” They strayed from their known course on occasion, flirting with synths on 2014’s “Rave Tapes,” wavering on the exact extent to which they incorporate vocals, both sung and spoken-word. But by and large, Mogwai, as post-rock bands often do, has stuck to a formula: Quiet-to-loud progressions built around minimal motifs all captured in a timeframe barely longer than the average pop song.
“Party in the Dark” breaks with all of that. It’s the closest thing to an out-and-out pop song Mogwai has ever released. No, it doesn’t have a Jack Antonoff signature hand-clap pre-chorus or Max Martin’s polished reverb. It’s not something that you’ll hear on top 40 radio. But there’s a riff, regular verses and even a chorus. A good one, too. In a year that perhaps lacked great straightforward rock songs, the atmospheric dream-pop of “Party in the Dark,” is a worthwhile contribution. But it doesn’t feel like it belongs next to “Coolverine.” It’s certainly interesting to hear both the classic version of the band and something new back-to-back, but in a genre where albums are expected to appear as cohesive wholes, the inconsistency is striking.
Luckily for listeners, Mogwai quickly make a choice on how “Every Country’s Sun,” should sound, and it’s an expected one: A slightly more modern-sounding version of their trademark style, using some more electronic effects than their early work, while remaining grounded in traditional rock instrumentation. Mogwai may have a formula, but it works and they know how to keep each album distinctive enough to separate itself from the rest.
Each track following “Party in the Dark,” sounds like it was written to score the most important moments in life. If “Crossing the Road Material,” is meant to be listened to in the situation the name implies, get ready for the most inspirational journey from one side of the street to the other you’ve ever experienced. But on tracks like “aka 47”and “1000 foot face,” Mogwai know how to hold back, which does nothing but reinforce the effect of the songs where they don’t. The album ends about as triumphantly as you’d expect, with a buzzing synth over a combination of clean and distorted guitars closing out the title track.
Some bands evolve greatly over the years. Mogwai have mostly made incremental changes over the last 20. But if they keep sounding this good, why mess with the formula?
Album: Every Country’s Sun
Label: Temporary Residence Limited
Best tracks: “Coolverine,” “Crossing the Road Material,” “Don’t Believe the Fife”
If you like: Explosions in the Sky, Pink Floyd, Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Rating: 4/5 Shamrocks