Mogwai has always played a brand of music—brooding, instrumental post-rock—that their fans might call “challenging.” And challenging it is—not only for the listener, but for the band as well. It’s challenging to work in a genre that has become nearly synonymous with pretension. It’s challenging to maintain interest in sprawling, nine-minute epics. It’s challenging to acknowledge your influences without being labeled yet another Slint or Rodan copy.
With all these challenges, it’s no surprise that Mogwai’s work over the past ten years has been somewhat uneven. When they’re weak, the music is tedious, derivative, and overwrought. But when Mogwai are on, their songs stir us in a way that few other things—musically or otherwise—can. Their strength lies in an ability to take a simple riff and slowly weave an epic arrangement around it, until every color of every note has been revealed. A single chord can be heartbreaking.
This year’s “Mr Beast” shows Mogwai at the strongest they have ever been. The band has distanced itself from old, self-indulgent habits—no more overlong tracks or repetitive, angular guitar riffs. Instead, they’ve focused on production: on distilling the feel of their earlier albums into something intense and compact.
Mogwai’s manager, Alen McGee, has been quoted as saying that “Mr Beast” is “possibly better than ‘Loveless,’” the legendary My Bloody Valentine triumph of sound engineering (and reportedly the most expensive record ever made).The comparison is not quite called for, but McGee is right to call attention to the album’s production. This album sounds great. The tone is full, lush, and urgent, pushing Mogwai’s music toward an emotional depth that their earlier work had only hinted at.
The tracks here unfold at a tempered pace; the songs take their time, but the process is by no means leisurely. Instead, tension builds as the sound expands, often reaching pitches of dizzying intensity. “Auto Rock,” the album’s opener, constructs a steady crescendo around a spare piano melody, adding fuzzy distortion and a heavy, insistent beat. The result may be melodramatic, but it’s also nothing less than beautiful.
Vocals, as always, are spare in this album. When Mogwai do decide to incorporate their voices into a song, the vocals blend right into the texture of the instrumental fabric, becoming another part of the ambience. Even as the individual elements of the music may merge together, however, the structure of the songs themselves is never indistinct. The rhythm and the drive are always in the forefront, pushing the song forward, holding us in suspense for the next big crest of sound.
Granted, this suspense is not indefinite. Each song contains a range of sounds and moods, but this range tends to repeat itself from track to track. This is an album best appreciated in small doses. Still, “Mr Beast” captures Mogwai at an important moment—they seem to have shed their extraneous embellishments and gone straight to the heart of their music. And that moment is surely one worth listening to.