Sound — 9
There has already been one review praising this as a great album, and one calling it mediocre, so I have decided to approach this review entirely from the context of the bands previous work. As a result this review will be a little unconventional, it's going to run very long for one, and it won't be structured the usual way. Under this section I'm going to lay out my thesis and back ground, under lyrics I will discuss the absence of them, and under Overall Impression I'm going to take a song by song approach and wrap up the review. The ratings on this review are also nigh asinine, since they will be averaged with the ratings of other reviews which take a completely different approach from this one, in the end I think I will be leaving the overall score fairly intact.
On Young Team the group found its ability to blow the head off of the most seasoned rockers with their kind of quiet to ear shatteringly loud dynamics with tracks like Mogwai Fear Satan and Like Herod, but they also established a penchant for combining strong melody and dissonance. On Come On Die Young they learned control, the entire album retrains itself from exploding until the Ex-Cowboy/Chocky/Christmas Steps set-piece that nearly concludes the album.
With Rock Action they showed their ability to condense their ideas into concise songs on a concise album (with the exception of 2 Rights Make a Wrong) and let vocals take a more prominent role in their songs, as up until that point only one or two songs would really have them. Rock Action also took a stylistic shift, using more electronic elements and denser compositions, most likely aided by the addition of Barry Burns to the band.
Happy Songs For Happy People took the stylistic shift of Rock Action and expanded it into a sweeping, sad album, with the level of arc (not story, just compositional) that Come On Die Young had. 2006's Mr. Beast was the landmark album that every band puts out if they last long enough that showcases every aspect of what they've done to that point, and while the songs were new, very few new ideas were there (with the exception of Glasgow Mega-Snake, Mogwai's first balls to the wall tear your head off rock song that doesn't let up the whole way, and stays under four minutes). Mr. Beast did feature a higher volume of songs with vocals than any other album to date, but with the exception of a few standouts doesn't have much to show for it. Finally in 2008, ten years after the release of Young Team, we come The Hawk is Howling. This album literally undoes almost EVERY way the band had changed over their career, and spins off into something totally new, yet most like their first record than any of the others. The songs are distinctly discreet, not arcing over the record but self contained pieces, unlike CODY or HSFHP. there's not a single vocal line anywhere on the albums at all, unlike the increasing prominence with Rock Action, HSFHP, and Mr. Beast.
Instead of fighting over songs, the guitars share the stage with the synths. The song lengths are uncompromising but natural (4:17 being the shortest, and 8:02 being the longest), and last of all there's not a single filler song on the album, which has always been something that Mogwai does until Mr. Beast, no transitional pieces here. Not only does Mogwai eschew every way they have changed in the past, but here they've written the best set of songs to date.
Lyrics — 8
This is the first (non-soundtrack) work from the band to feature absolutely no voices (vocals or samples) anywhere in the mix of the album. It is far from the first album to do this, but I think it is one of the most masterfully handled. Making an album this grandiose with no vocals speaks something about the power of music itself, and how the notes and textures of a song have a more immediate and powerful impact than lyrics, which are usually interpreted after the song is over and retroactively applied based on your reaction to the sound of the song in the first place. Here Mogwai finally does the proverbial rip-off-yer-shirt-and-flex-yo-muscles move and demonstrates their power over your amygdala while leaving their intentions completely transparent.
Overall Impression — 9
01. I'm Jim Morrison I'm Dead - A slow burner. Quiet piano chords start it off and sparse instrumentation slowly builds around it until the crescendo peaks and a blissful wash of melody wash over the song. Similar to Mr. Beast's album starter Auto Rock, only better.
02. Batcat - METAL. This is the heaviest song that Mogwai has ever put out, and its groove remain unbroken for four minutes until a swimming section of multiple time signatures and wandering fuzzed out guitars gets your head spinning for the crushing finale. Wait a minute... its sort of like Mr. Beasts second song... ONLY BETTER. Noticing a pattern? Well forget about it because it stops here.
03. Daphne And The Brain - A calm and pleasant piece, with a hint of tension. A single guitar line drives the song over sparkly synths. The combination of live and sequenced drums at the end does a great job of adding hidden complexity.
04. Local Authority - A sad one, this song never overwhelms you with emotion it keeps you static, waiting for a release that never comes, it's not boring though, in fact it has the opposite effect and has you hanging on every note, wondering what could happen next.
05. The Sun Smells Too Loud - Mogwai's most transparent dabble with electronica. This trancy piece has more bounce and bump than any song they've made in the past, and the synth production is mind bogglingly layered, even though its fairly repetitive and runs at seven minutes, it doesn't get tiresome until you listened to the album over and over again.
06. King's Meadow - The melodic bass and sparse supportive instruments is reminiscent of R U Still Into It? The descending melodies reinforce the sadness and the lack of percussion gives a ponderous feeling without feeling like a transitional piece, even though it sits between to completely different songs, this song develops enough to warrant its own merit.
07. I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School - Weird title huh? It doesn't make sense until you've listened to the song and you imagine the goofy scots-men joking with each other after just having practiced the song and saying "oh man that's got to be the title!" This song the the centre-piece to the album. It works on a grander scale than My Father My King and incorporates more complexity than Like Herod, but keeps its track length under eight minutes. Beginning with a pleasant bass solo section, the song truly starts with wandering guitars and pianos, meandering their way around a D chord and every so ofter hinting at a greater purpose, then a pause. The instrument come back together after a bassline establishes a central theme, bring the guitars in to flesh it out, then it pulls back again, only to have all the instruments come charging back in with an even simpler version of the theme, more in unison than ever, building monumental tension before the song just explodes into a squealing, crushing, climax that raises the hairs on you neck every time you hear it. Superb, the best track they've ever written.
08. Scotland's Shame - The longest track on the album; organs kicks off this drone dirge. Slowly the drenched-in-reverb guitars fade in, sounding like a thousand string sections playing in a cavern deep beneath your feet. The Drums give the song drive and as the pound away you can imagine a royal funeral procession in the dark ages marching across the plains.
09. Thank You Space Expert - Almost as long and twice as sparse, this song, like Local Authority, is reminiscent of the restrained pieces of Come On Die Young, but leaves you relaxed instead of the needing a deep tissue massage feeling that songs like May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door or Kappa can leave you with. A fitting title, this song could be the soundtrack of astronauts.
10. The Precipice - Another fitting title for the album closer. This song maintain a constant driving rhythm from its simple opening guitar line through all its complex melodic and disharmonic development. No Mogwai song before make you want to stomp your foot like this one. It's another slow builder, but its this that set it apart from similar songs like We're No Here, which blast your head off from the beginning. This one draws you in, enticing, hypnotic, and then scares the shit out of you. But, just when you think it's going to take it up one final notch... it ends. Like someone holding you over a cliff and just when you think they're going to drop your, you find you self on you feet again, thoroughly shaken, but very much intact.
What separates this album from previous entirely instrumental modern rock albums is its quality of not sound like one, with its discreet songs and varied moods while retaining cohesion, its runs with the best albums including vocals of the last 20 years. And in the context of the bands work opens up a new horizon of opportunities.