Album released this week in… 2008: Mogwai – The Hawk is Howling
MOGWAI are a post-rock band from Scotland who famously like to shy away from the term post-rock. Despite this, they’ve inspired many of their contemporaries to take inspiration from their signature chaotic droning ten-minute long instrumentals and continue the genre’s growth with more bands that also dislike the term post-rock (This Will Destroy You, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono, Explosions in the Sky, The If These Trees Could Talk, etc).
The conversation I’ve had often leads to the same question of whether rock is itself ‘over’ enough to warrant a post- suffix to create a new genre of rock? The short answer is no, rock is not over, but it has changed dramatically enough since the new millennium to reveal drastic changes in many bands approach to the good old fashioned guitar band dynamic. In this sense, Mogwai are seminal.
The Hawk Is Howling was released in 2008 following the successes of Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast, both albums that earned Mogwai considerable repute and surprising many in learning that this new sonic sound had existed since the release of Young Team in 1997. It met mixed reviews from music snobs but widespread praise from the mainstream press which was probably not what the band were aiming for; often eschewing the traditional lyrical stripe of the late 2010s in favour of very long, thematically contrasting instrumentals that blended into each other as if they were one long piece rather than a collection of individual tracks.
Nevertheless, the hipsters would be proven wrong as The Hawk is Howling has produced some of Mogwai’s best loved and well known tracks that prove signature to their mid-term style. Opening on the brooding piano intro to ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’, the album almost invites itself to be listened to exclusively on an early-morning commute to college. It casts wintry soundscapes across a growing mass of sonic screeching guitars that build and build for a full three minutes alongside the signature melodic leading bass of Dominic Aitchinson, before a dawning crescendo slams us into a cosmic wall of sound that builds itself around wailing guitars and thumping drums.
The track then cuts into a more familiar guitar-based track in the form of ‘Batcat’, a more typically ‘Britcore’ piece, that breaks from what part-time fans may come to recognise as chilled Mogwai. This demonstrates not only the band’s versatility but artistic license and variety during their ten-odd years of musical experience. Not only that, but this is a hardcore song that smashes on, without lyrics, for a whole five minutes, and still sounds awesome.
The songs could very well feature in an episode of Wonders of the Universe, and it wouldn’t be the first galactic plug for Mogwai as signature track ‘Stop Coming To My House’ has been used in the past in a widely distributed YouTube video narrated by the great Carl Sagan taken from his ‘Pale Blue Dot’ musing. (Definitely a video worth watching if given adequate spare time and thought.) Their sound demonstrates their ability to move beyond traditional landscapes painted by genres and create their own, not necessarily the landscape of ‘post-rock’, whatever that is, but rather the lack of need for a defining genre.
There is a constant contrast between a melodic piano piece and a thrashing hardcore track such as ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’ and ‘Batcat’. Given the timeframe, very few other bands were following the same pursuit and The Hawk is Howling continued on what Mogwai had been building on for years, just with better production value. In this sense, they can be criticised for having kept to a very standard structure and making songs that in a sense sound the same.
It must be hard to compose instrumental tracks without the diversity and fluidity of a full orchestra or a mixing desk, but the fact that the archetypal droning Mogwai track such as ‘I’m Jim Morrison’ and ‘I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School’ can still feel distinct and create their own soundscape lends itself to their mastery of the craft.
It also explains why many other bands have picked up on these traits to manifest it within their own sound, such as Explosions in the Sky who have a melodic bass section accompanying the richer sound of a lead guitar that meld together into a startling cataclysm of screeching sound following a building interlude.
What separates Mogwai from post-rock acts like Sigur Rós however is their abject determination to avoid categories; whilst the latter were content to meld themselves into the popular approach to the genre by creating beautifully charming and orchestral sounds, Mogwai preferred to edge somewhere in the murky shallows between the melody of ‘Hoppipolla’ and something like 65daysofstatic’s ‘Piano Fights’ which exhibits an inhibition of electronic and hardcore elements.
However, The Hawk is Howling also opened up the way for 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will which focused and opened upon a more cosmetically rich sounding guitar hook and trashy electronics. Hardcore Will Never Die also demonstrated Mogwai’s later flexibility with vocals and a transition away from the predominantly droning sounds to more approachable steady rock structures.
Post-rock, being the fluid beast it is, often lends itself to get scoped into surrounding genres and to never be distinct enough to be its own genre; leading the bands that solely ascribe to its stylings to get swept aside into obscurity or to press on as independent artists vying to make a living. Personally the collaboration of 65daysofstatic with Hello Games’ upcoming release No Man’s Sky is causing something of a stir to music nerds who appreciate the genre so much.
But, conversely, we should expect trepidation – fans of the genre often fear mainstream popularity and will fight tooth and nail to claim that their favourite post-rock moments were caught at the fringe stage of a European pseudo-festival. The Hawk is Howling, however, serves as a benchmark album in the wider Mogwai timescale, often leaving fans of the old ways to converge upon limited releases such as Special Moves to feel the old glow of droning electric guitars and an absolute lack of vocals washing over themselves.