Recording of January 2009: The Hawk Is Howling

MOGWAI: The Hawk Is Howling
Rock Action/Matador OLE 832-1 (LP), -2 (CD). Gareth Jones, James Aparicio, prods.; Andy Miller, Tony Doogan, Andi Whitelock, engs. AAA/AAD. TT: 63:29
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Do you remember that time in Scotland, brother? Senior year in college, studying abroad, away from home for the first time in our lives. Michelle and I had just had another of our huge blowouts, and this time it was for real. I wanted nothing more than to lock myself up in our dingy hostel room until semester was over, to escape from Michelle and all the other faces of our school. But somehow you convinced me to go out for a walk, and so we went, buzzed on Bell's and god knows how many pints of black stout, along the cobblestones and through the mist and moss. It was a cold and miserable autumn day, a day of somber grays and dazzling greens, and the fat clouds hung so heavy and low that we couldn't see for more than a half mile in any direction and everything around us seemed so ripe with questions and possibilities and life, like our senses were enhanced by this deep, deep loneliness and shit was just about to burst.

Our walk, like a Mogwai song, was long and winding and wordless. We had had enough of words, enough of conversation. Words would be replaced by quiet action, by contemplation. Seriously, brother, if there could've been any album playing along to our walk that day, it would have been Mogwai's The Hawk Is Howling. Its 10 songs mirror that day, their melancholic passages sliding in and out of hope, all knotted together like bedsheets after another sleepless night. You have to hear it. Mogwai is Scotland. They come from a time when bands like Teenage Fan Club and Arab Strap released CDs on their own labels because it was the only way for them to be heard. Glasgow in 1995 was like that. Abandonment and isolation bred a strong DIY ethic, but the musicians were aware of what was happening outside their gloomy city. You can hear in Mogwai's sound the thunderous shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine, the noisy experimentation of Sonic Youth, the manic desperation of Joy Division.

The album opens with "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead." Shimmering harmonics and sustained chords from guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings play against Barry Burns' simple piano lines; Dominic Aitchison's slow-moving bass riffs grow into captivating melodies; Martin Bulloch's sparse drums gradually become focused and driving.

All of this subtlety almost comes as a surprise. You might have expected something more like the flaming urgency of "Glasgow Mega-Snake," from Mr. Beast (2006), but nothing here is as obvious or direct. For a band whose goal has always been to play louder than any other, an undeniable sense of quietude runs through The Hawk. The stunning dynamic shifts that have characterized Mogwai since their 1997 debut, Young Team, are now often replaced by greater restraint, and a perfecting of their exquisitely subtle tonal shifts. That's not to say that Mogwai has gone completely soft. "Batcat," unquestionably the hardest rocker of the set, dashes that idea with its gut-wrenching kick-drum attack and heavy-metal guitars. Meanwhile, "Danphe and the Brain" and "Local Authority" are gentle, meditative reprieves with pulsating electronics and crystalline guitars locking together to form hypnotic soundscapes.

Tucked into the center of The Hawk Is Howling is the album's most blissful track, "The Sun Smells Too Loud." Its rollicking tom-tom beat is complemented by warbling synth lines that recall the early electronic recordings of Vladimir Ussachevsky, as guitars trace looping, fuzzed-out riffs. "King's Meadow" and "Thank You Space Expert" play out like two of Erik Satie's Gnossiennes: piano notes, sparse but perfectly placed, seem to almost stumble over one another as they move effortlessly between delight and despair. The closing track, "The Precipice," rolls in ominously, floor toms threatening a storm until Bulloch crashes down on his hi-hat and the guitars erupt into soaring twin leads that take us to a sudden, screeching halt—dead silence, almost as if The Hawk Is Howling never happened at all.

Matador presses all of its albums on 180gm vinyl, and this one is beautifully packaged. The sound on both LP and CD is superb, and no other Mogwai album does justice to the band's dynamic shifts and textural contrasts—the dynamic range here is dizzying. A real sense of air and space works to illuminate the album's intense emotional complexity. If the CD offers a touch more immediacy and sharpness, it lacks the LP's full-bodied depth and fleshy images. Also available is a limited edition with a bonus DVD that includes the appropriately creepy video for "Batcat" and a touching short film, Adelia, I Want to Love, documenting the band's recent tour of Italy.

So yeah, brother, I know you'd love this album. Go out and buy it. And mention it to Michelle for me. I'm sure she'd love it, too.—Stephen Mejias