Mogwai - Rave Tapes
On their eighth release, Mogwai show they have talent but don't fully utilize it
I’ve always found reviewing post-rock music to be difficult. For those that don’t know, post-rock can be summed up as the genre where rock instruments are used to create compositions without standard rock music structures. There are no choruses, bridges, and frequently no lyrics, which leads to many post-rock songs being described as “ambient.” Mogwai definitely fit this bill, so here goes nothing.
Scottish post-rock group Mogwai are not a band to allow lengthy gaps in their discography. They have released some sort of album at least every two years since their debut Mogwai Young Team in 1997, and last year released their soundtrack to the French TV series Les Revenants. While some groups that dedicate themselves to such regular releases reinvent themselves several times over (see: of Montreal), Mogwai have tended to stick to their tried and true style of creating fairly minimalist “soundscapes.” This does not mean that have not evolved however; the two other Mogwai albums I’ve heard, Mogwai Young Team and fourth album Happy Songs For Happy People are fairly distinct from one another in terms of instrumentation and breadth.
To continue this trend, Rave Tapes is still the same Mogwai you’d expect to hear, yet slightly darker and more synthesizer based. The album name and artwork may be hinting at the more electronic influences, although I imagine they use the word “rave” somewhat sarcastically here. After all, I listened to this album almost entirely while working, and it seems much more appropriate as background music than something you’d play to rile people up. I’m not saying that it’s boring, but…well, fine. It can be boring it parts.
Rave Tapes opens with the ominously titled “Heard About You Last Night,” which fittingly starts with an ominous tone before drums, bass, and guitar kick in and it becomes a very basic instrumental rock song. Its followed by “Simon Ferocious,” a synthesizer-heavy song that relies on a very simple, repeated melody with electric guitar weaving in and out. If it seems like I’m glossing over these songs, it’s because I truthfully have glossed over them while listening, and the album doesn’t really get interesting until third track “Remurdered.” I may have used the word “ominious” before, but unlike “Heard About You Last Night,” this track really does deserve the adjective. It builds slowly and creepily with a subdued synthesizer line, intermittent drums, and guitar, until a louder synthesizer line takes over the song and all of the instruments become much more intense. This is the kind of dynamic play that marked Mogwai’s start, and 17 years later they still excel at it.
While “Remurdered” is a real standout track from Rave Tapes, the remainder of the album doesn’t especially live up to its striking nature, and essentially that third track is its peak. There are other memorable moments on Rave Tapes though, such as fifth track “Repelish” that uses an extensive spoken word sample of someone discussing hidden satanic messages in Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” I actually like the instrumental part of the song, yet the spoken word part seems a little overpowering. Don’t get me wrong, spoken word in post-rock can definitely work (see: Godspeed You! Black Emperor), but in this instance it just seems to be trying a little too hard. Maybe if the speaker had a Scottish accent…but I digress. Meanwhile, “Blues Hour” actually has drearily-sung vocals over a piano melody, and ends up fitting its sad-sounding name. It’s the closest thing to a standard rock song on Rave Tapes, and as bleak as it is, turns out to be one of the high points of the album.
To its credit, the low points on Rave Tapes aren’t really bad, and at no point did I ever want to skip any of the tracks. The songs are just there. Many tracks have one or two distinguishing features, but when put in their context, just fail to jump out. I could be overly harsh on this, or just not get post-rock, but Rave Tapes seemed to be underutilizing what could have been. Many of the songs sound like they will build into something, yet only “Remurdered” manages this. Most tracks kind of stay on the same keel the whole time, and turn out to be more ambient than their initial notes would have you believe. This is not a release that will cause great upset among fans, as there’s no major shift from what Mogwai has done before, yet for the most part it fails to break any molds and does not assert itself from being background music.
Tags: mogwai, rave tapes