Mogwai recently released a deluxe 10th-anniversary edition of their debut, Young Team, which opens with a girl testifying on the majesty of her favorite band: “If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this.” Now that’s brassy, but then Mogwai were a brassy band back in those days, what with their reputation for mocking their Britrock cohorts (“Blur are shite”) and an assumed mandate to shake the pillars of heaven via their rock action. Conveniently, they had the sound to back it up: That record did sound like the stars, like a huge, dumb shower of light and fire, all sad and epic and full of hope and kind of scary. Its final track, the 16-minute “Mogwai Fear Satan,” was such an unstable mix of brutal noise orbiting around shimmering tenderness that it was Old Gooseberry himself who needed to watch his back, not the other way around. Thus, the album became a touchstone for an entire generation of Explosions in the Sky. If you enjoyed that band’s plucky notes of wistful triumph during many a 2008 Olympic montage, you have Young Team‘s inspiration to thank.
Over the past decade, however, as Mogwai have grown increasingly adept in the studio—the production slicker, the songs shorter, sturdier, and more lustrous—they’ve perfected their craft nearly to the point of rendering it innocuous. The Hawk Is Howling doesn’t stop this slide, but it does manage to slow it down considerably. Reuniting with Andy Miller, who produced some of their earliest and best tunes (including “Helicon 1”), the band is finally taking its time again with these songs, something they’ve remained great at onstage (where their earliest songs remain staples) but have struggled with on record. In contrast to many of the tunes on recent offerings like Mr. Beast and Happy Songs for Happy People, new jams like “Scotland’s Shame” and opener “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” (the titles are top-notch throughout) enjoy the blissful build-ups—measure by languid measure—with which the band made its name, and throughout, you can finally hear the layers of guitars, bass, and keyboards that past records compressed into a solid brick of sound.
True to form, Mogwai still balance out the beefy guitar assault of a song like “Batcat” with the atmospheric sweetness of “Local Authority,” but for the first time in their career, they manage to synthesize both approaches on “The Sun Smells Too Loud,” the band’s first jaunty tune ever, featuring a lock-step backbeat, sparkling atmospherics, and a chunky melody line. It’s a page out of Mogwai grandchildren Ratatat’s playbook, and it shows these Scots doing something we haven’t seen them do in a while: evolve. Who says you can’t teach an Old Team new tricks?
Mogwai play Terminal 5 September 18, and the ATP Festival in Catskills September 19 to 21 with My Bloody Valentine and, like, 600 other bands