1. Helicon 1
In the late 1990s Mogwai arrived like a brick through the window of Britpop in its death throes: they could say more with a dark, spare, mysterious guitar instrumental than any number of Oasis copyists could in a thousand insipid strums. Over the years, they would create their own strange iconography by dressing in Kappa tracksuits, picking song and album titles invoking all from Glasgow gang culture (Mogwai Young Team) to surreal in-jokes (Oh! How the Dogs Stack Up) to, um, Scottish football referees (Hugh Dallas). Arriving two years after they formed, Helicon 1 was one of the first pieces of music Mogwai ever released, a limited-edition single better recognised today for its inclusion on the compilation album Ten Rapid. It made No 2 on John Peel’s 1997 festive 50 (Peel proved instrumental in boosting Mogwai, inviting them for five sessions between 1996 and 2004, some of which are on the 2005 BBC album Government Commissions). Helicon 1 has ever since been an anchor in Mogwai’s live set and the ultimate manifestation of the quiet-loud formula that defined their embryonic phase – a brutal-sweet symphony which, like the best of Mogwai songs, is poised between giving you a manly hug and sticking the head in you.
Hugely prolific in their first few years, Mogwai released a string of EPs and singles between 1997 and 2001 containing all kinds of treasured non-album offcuts and oddities, from the trippy electronic jam Superheroes of BMX to Burn Girl Prom Queen, a slow sigh of guitar and horns featuring an unlikely cameo from the Cowdenbeath Brass Band. A studio in Cowdenbeath gave birth to Stanley Kubrick. Initially released in 1999 on an untitled EP issued by Mogwai’s first label, Chemikal Underground, this is surely the most stunning of all early Mogwai rarities. Dominic Aitchison’s melodic bassline provides the backbone for four dreamy minutes of delay-pedal-swollen guitars, swirling organ and weird pitch-shifted samples like the sound of a dying wasp, which together eschew the shock tactic of some earlier material in favour of a steady textural glow. The most beautiful thing to come out of Cowdenbeath since, well, ever.
Much is made of Mogwai’s music’s propensity to mess with your physical faculties – be it high, distorted frequencies to sear your eardrums or low end to liquidise your guts. Mogwai Fear Satan is the track most liable to cause heart palpitations. The fiercely beautiful two-chord, 16-minute climax of their first album proper, 1997’s Mogwai Young Team, expands the quiet-loud formula to the effect of quiet-loud-quieter-LOUDER. Listen to the supreme live version of this track on 2010’s live album Special Moves – or better still, watch said version in the accompanying concert film Burning by French directors Vincent Moon and Nathanaël Le Scouarnec. No matter how many times you might have heard Mogwai Fear Satan previously (it’s another staple of the Mogwai live set), it remains impossible to tell exactly when the woozy, flute-licked looping passage at the song’s deceptively mellow core is suddenly going to explode back into life and scare the hell out of everyone in earshot. Which, considering how loud Mogwai shows are, tends to be a lot of people.
There have been several noteworthy exceptions to Mogwai’s customary stance as an instrumental band over the years, from R U Still in 2 It, featuring Aidan Moffat of fellow 90s Scottish miscreants Arab Strap, to Dial: Revenge, featuring words in Welsh by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals. The title of Mogwai’s prettiest and best non-instrumental, Cody, is based on the acronym for the album from which it emerged, 1999’s stunningly stark and skeletal Come on Die Young (another Glasgow gang reference). De facto frontman Stuart Braithwaite sings a shyly multi-layered vocal that feels all the more haunting for its less than match-fit fragility. “Old songs stay ’til the end / Sad songs remind me of friends” runs the chorus, verbalising the deep Scottish melancholy always so evidently at the heart of Mogwai’s music, even if it’s rarely put into words.
I’m going to stick my neck out and declare 2001’s Rock Action to be Mogwai’s best album (much as Braithwaite disagrees). The band must be fairly fond of it themselves, being as they also chose Rock Action (the nickname of the Stooges’ drummer, Scott Asheton) as the title for their record label, on which they’ve released much of their own most recent material, plus work by the likes of Errors, Remember Remember, Envy, Part Chimp and others. Produced by Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann (who is currently producing their next album, due in 2017), Rock Action is the album with which Mogwai began the second act of their career, dabbling with electronic elements as well as guitar sounds and generally evidencing much broader sonic ambitions than they previously might have been given credit for. Chiming guitar arpeggios and a vocoder vocal are layered and layered upon, first with a hi-hat and ride cymbal, then bass and horns and electronics and eventually even a spot of unintelligible singing from their old pal Gruff Rhys and some banjo for good measure. This triumphantly sad masterpiece stops you in your tracks every time – simply stunning.
My Father My King is probably the most punk-rock one-third of an hour (and 13 seconds) of music you will ever hear. It is a single droning, vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding riff with a couple of minor variations repeated ad infinitum until the whole thing is vaporised by distortion and white noise. This Steve Albini-produced standalone single (based loosely on a melody from the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu taught to Mogwai by producer Arthur Baker) was released in late 2001 as a kind of belated coda to the unusually short Rock Action. A sticker on its cover described the contents as “two parts serenity and one part death metal”, and little more need be said than that. Mogwai went on to release a handful of other out-and-out mean-sounding compositions – as this 2006’s Glasgow Mega Snake and 2008’s Batcat for two – but none as mean as this. A weapons-grade encore number, it’s closed many a Mogwai gig, including all six of their 20th anniversary shows in Glasgow and London in 2015.
Mogwai’s evocative instrumentals are ripe for soundtracking and scoring films and TV shows, but by and large the band have been selective about which screen projects they’ve contributed to (a presumably mortgages-paying spot on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice in 2006 notwithstanding). They’ve provided original music for both seasons to date of the French supernatural drama The Returned, for Mark Cousins’s documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (released as a standalone album simply called Atomic in 2016) and the Leonardo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese climate-change documentary Before the Flood. Back in 2006, Mogwai scored Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, an extraordinary, almost nature documentary-like art film by fellow Scot Douglas Gordon that used 17 synchronised cameras to track Zinedine Zidane in close up through a game for Real Madrid. Largely improvised in the studio, the music Mogwai produced was a return to the haunting, bare-bones stuff of the Come on Die Young album. 7.25 was in fact an old unused outtake from the 1998 sessions for that record, and provides the score and the film’s spine-tingling emotional lift-off with a deep breath of droning harmonium, delay-smeared guitars and intricate melodic bass. It holds up outside the movie as one of Mogwai’s gentlest and most mesmerising compositions.
Part of the reason why Mogwai have achieved greater career longevity than many other predominantly instrumental bands may have something to do with their intuitive savvy for making instruments sing what feel like wordless topline melodies (think the glockenspiel on Summer, or the high guitar parts on Hunted by a Freak and Sine Wave, to name just a few). Friend of the Night, the lead track from their fifth album, Mr Beast, is carried gracefully over a signature rising storm of guitars and drums by an elegant, drifting Barry Burns piano line that’s irresistibly hummable, and once more kicks Mogwai’s music in an unexpected direction. A pocket symphony of stirring proportions, it’s officially the band’s biggest singles chart hit to date, having stormed the UK Top 40 at a dizzying No 38 in January 2006.
Clocking in at a by-Mogwai-standards light-speed 144bpm, Mexican Grand Prix is the purring engine in Mogwai’s seventh album, 2011’s menacingly-titled Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (home to a couple of the group’s all-time great song titles in George Square Thatcher Death Party and You’re Lionel Richie). Unusually for a band with such distinctive musical signatures, it’s a track in obvious thrall to another group – Neu!, or maybe more accurately Stereolab doing Neu! – from its electronic pulse to a driving drum beat and eerily indecipherable robotically processed vocals, like the sound of a Satnav gone tonto. Homage as it may be, it’s an instantly identifiable standout in the Mogwai oeuvre.
Another Braithwaite-sung rarity, and proof that, two decades in, Mogwai have still got it in spades. Coming on like Hüsker Dü fallen down a well – all muddy vocals, jagged guitar lines overdriven far beyond the point of conventional wisdom and swirling horror-movie organ drones – Teenage Exorcists is probably the least Mogwai song Mogwai have ever released. “It’s undone and uncertain / an apology accepted,” intones Braithwaite obliquely. Considered in juxtaposition to the very different soundtrack work they’ve done recently on Atomic and Before the Flood, it’s difficult to predict where Mogwai’s prolific and increasingly diverse output might lead them next, and long may that continue.