Things fall apart. Entropy, disintegration, call it what you will. It doesn’t really matter.
Because in the hands of the Glasgow quintet Mogwai, any attempts at fixed or invented meanings are parried and ruthlessly ridiculed. Their song and album titles, though seemingly charged with suggestion, are usually slapped on at the last minute and are, in fact, meaningless.
It is indeed futile to categorize Mogwai’s work in the conventional sense, as they’ve been all over the sonic map since Young Team and Ten Rapid dropped like a nuclear strike in 1997. Their stripped-down 1999 effort, Come On Die Young, diffused distortion’s pyrotechnics, exhibiting the band’s skill at dissonant melody, especially on tracks like “Cody.” (An acronym for the album-at-large or a somber love song? You decide.) 2001’s Rock Action album was their most accessible, and while just as sedate (if not more so) as Come On Die Young, it purposefully expanded upon the use of vocals, putting much distance between Mogwai and their thunderous guitar assaults of the past. By the time their last record, Happy Songs for Happy People (2003), hit the shelves, Mogwai had merged its schizophrenic sonic identities into one representative palette: those searching for Young Team rockers found solace in epics like “Ratts of the Capital” and “Killing All the Flies,” while those favoring more conventional explorations latched onto favorites like “Hunted By a Freak.”
Still, Mogwai remains the most elusive of signifiers. A mostly instrumental quintet that sometimes makes way for subdued vocals. A could-give-a-shit Glaswegian collective, shot through with relentless humor but still inspiring the most intellectually serious interpretations. Cosmic goofs with one finger on the panic button, awash in guitars, pedals, pianos, horns, woodwinds, samplers, laptops, and whatever else they can find and fuck around with.
Tortured terminology falls off of them like dead skin. Post-rock? So 20th century. Shoegaze? Died with their heroes My Bloody Valentine, whose legendary 1991 effort Loveless helped build the sonic foundation upon which Mogwai triumphantly stands.
Speaking of My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai’s band manager Alan McGee–who bankrolled Loveless before the band’s lead architect, Kevin Shields, almost bankrupted the Creation label–was rumored to be on the internet arguing that Mogwai’s new album, Mr. Beast (Matador), is superior to MBV’s masterwork. You could hear the band cringe from miles away, as they did when I brought the subject up during a sit-down lunch of mince pies and more at London’s forward-looking Institute for the Contemporary Arts.
“I know that Alan is just trying to drum up some attention,” explains Stuart Brathwaite, the band’s de facto leader and most trenchant jester. “He’s all about making grand statements. He’s a great guy and very funny. But I was embarrassed by it. To be honest, when people compare us to My Bloody Valentine, I think it’s because they were the last band outside of the mainstream to actually infiltrate the mainstream.”
Nonetheless, the comparisons are resilient enough to survive, to Mogwai’s endless frustration. After all, Braithwaite is friends with Shields; plus, the shoegaze wizard decided to drop by and catch the third installment of Mogwai’s five-day warm-up at the ICA. Add that to the fact that both bands have shared the services of McGee, and you’ve got one persistent storyline that will most likely never die, especially if the rumored reunion of My Bloody Valentine comes to pass and Mogwai signs on to open for them.