Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that Mogwai haven’t released an album to a great deal of critical acclaim since 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People. There was, to be fair, a lot of praise for their soundtrack work including Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and last year’s Les Revenants. As far as studio albums go, however, it’s been a while since Mogwai had their bite. I think Rave Tapes, their eighth studio album, is the game changer. I am a Mogwai fan. I busted my knee at their Music Hall show a few years back by somehow interacting a little harshly with the barrier during their performance. Yet for all that, the last three albums have felt a little….well…they haven’t exactly been Rock Action heights of brilliance. Upon listening to Rave Tapes I feel like they’ve recaptured what it was that made them so essential in the first place.
It’s the strength without the need for a bombastic climax on each song that highlights this. Instead Mogwai treat each track as a continuation of the last in terms of layers, tempo and mood – slowly building on the sinister thread that is sewn throughout. Heard About You Last Night is the strongest start to a Mogwai album for me since 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People. It’s a sumptuous, warm and very full sounding track. Simon Ferocious is very different and closer to the lead single, Remurdered, in sound in that it’s a synth-flecked acid trip of a song: dreamy, with a hint of menace that comes to fruition on Remurdered. It increases the tempo despite being so brilliantly restrained and is definitely a high point on the album. The third of three great strides forward into something new.
Tracks like Hexon Bogon and Master Card are what we’ve come to expect from Mogwai on their last couple of albums, but nestled among the surrounding tracks they provide a sense of contrast without sounding completely out of place. Textured, heavy guitar and bass riffs work towards an apex with a sense of grandiloquence on tracks which show that Rave Tapes is not just one thing, not just one sound, but many. The track that falls at the midway point, Repelish, features a vocal sample about Satanic imagery in Led Zeppelin’s music. I don’t know how much it adds to the track for me. It’s interesting enough, some discordance going on in the track itself as the voice repeats “You’ve got to live for Satan” – a nod back, maybe, to Mogwai Fear Satan? I’ve seen it described as a masterstroke by some and a misstep by others. For me, personally, it’s the weakest point on an extremely strong album.
Deesh again highlights the sense of restraint that I just find so compelling about so much of Rave Tapes. It’s textured, it features a lot of the motifs we expect of a Mogwai song, but there’s also something about how much more difficult and skilled it can be to hold back when everyone expects you to just lash forward. It’s a shift – it’s showing that you don’t have to be creating brash sonic walls of noise in order to be big. It builds, but it builds slowly; there’s no racing to the finish. It seems that, for the first time in a while, the journey is what matters. I saw a review describing the track as ‘opulent’. I’m loath to use the words of others, but in this case it makes perfect sense. Can something be opulent without luxury? Then Blues Hour, a slow-burner, was my ‘holy wow’ point. It’s evocative of the late nights I spent studying whilst listening to Rock Action on repeat. It’s a track you can let sink in slowly. Album closer The Lord is Out of Control is a fitting end as it brings us back full circle by creating a similar soundscape to Heard About You Last Night, synths blending with the guitar lines which glide along with the distorted vocals.
Having plumbed the depths of their ability, Mogwai have created a beautiful monster. This is the best thing they’ve done in a long, long time. From the sounds of it, the band know it as well. If you’ve been anticipating this album, then expect to be blown away. This is music for the sake of their souls. Welcome back Mogwai.
Rave Tapes by Mogwai is out on Monday 20th January via Rock Action.