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The Hawk Is Howling

Rating: 7.1/10 ?

September 23, 2008
As the late nineties grew into the new millennium, it seemed that there was nothing Mogwai could not accomplish. Early on they released two substantial works in Young Team and Come On Die Young, albums that saw them change the game of song composition and dynamics in a way reminiscent of how Beethoven destroyed the Enlightenment and gave it feelings. But by the time of 2003's Happy Songs For Happy People, something had changed. While fans rightly treasure it, Happy Songs displayed warning signs for what lie ahead in the group's creative process. It was the first album that saw Mogwai approaching a comfortable formula - ten songs, each lasting around five minutes and revolving around one or two ideas rather than growing and changing through their running time. It was still beautiful, but the upheaval of the band's early works appeared to be over.

Thus, The Hawk Is Howling is an important moment for Scotland's finest, as it seems to be the keystone in the bridge to the rest of their careers. Prior to its release many speculated that the album would either establish the cozy format of Happy Songs and Mr. Beast as a secure and dependable template, or shake things up once again and reestablish the group as still being capable of groundbreaking and challenging material. Having once again recruited Andy Miller to uphold recording and production duties, as he had done for their classic late nineties material, chances were at the least reasonable that we would see a return to the days when Mogwai were so loud they caused a fistfight over the decibel level in Paris and inspired terror with the construction of "Like Herod." In truth, The Hawk Is Howling lands somewhere in the middle of these expectations; by the standards of a comfort zone album, it is a complete success, but it fails to recapture the passion and audacity that made Young Team and Come On Die Young so revelatory.

Lasting over an hour, none of the songs on The Hawk Is Howling are meted out in under four and a half minutes, with most averaging around the seven-minute mark. This fact alone tells you something significant about the approach to the record: this is straight-up, no-apologies Scottish Guitar Army with no chaser. The texture and balance of shorter, experimental tracks like "Punk Rock:" and "A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters" from earlier releases has been abandoned, leaving Mogwai's strong sense of identity and their own strengths to be the glue that keeps The Hawk Is Howling cohesive. While it does so, and layers of complexity are unearthed with each listen, the diversity and sense of adventure that marked the group's releases in the previous decade are not present.

Instead, The Hawk Is Howling has ten songs - all except "The Suns Smells Too Loud" with expectedly badass titles - that all serve as similar, well-served entries into a familiar format. Opener "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" is beautiful and massive, centered around a lone piano with hints of aggression that come to full fruition in the admittedly awesome "Batcat." While it fills essentially the same position as Mr. Beast's "Glasgow Mega-Snake," it creates a metal apocalypse more triumphantly, and sounds truly earth-shaking in a live setting [LAS feature]. Title aside, "The Sun Smells Too Loud" is Mogwai at their most relaxed and care free, with an electronic influence evoking a soundtrack to summer drives with loved ones through forests and open highways. Upon repeated listens, however, "Scotland's Shame" emerges as the album's flag bearer, a crossroads of understated melancholy, beauty and thundering force that exemplifies the album, achieving a balance that has been Mogwai's trademark since their inception. "The Precipice" builds to grandiose proportions, as the title suggests, leaving the listener on the brink of total achievement, discovery, and general life-affirming awesomeness.

Despite its lack of youthful anarchy, The Hawk Is Howling is an impressive record. Mogwai are among the world's most gifted musical collectives; perhaps they have just been making music too long to want or need to reinvent the game again. Think of this album as Band On The Run from a group closer to their Wings stage than returning to the days when the world was theirs. As long as they're together, though, some of us will keep a hope that they will save music one more time, when it truly and unequivocally sucks, and laugh at us for doubting that they could ever do it again.

Reviewed by Dave Toropov
Introduced to music in the womb with a pair of headphones on his mother's stomach, Dave Toropov has yet to recover the experience. A writer based in Boston and New York, he has also written for Prefix Magazine and What Was It Anyway, and is the maintainer of the "Middleclass Haunt" blog.

See other reviews by Dave Toropov



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