The five members of anarchic Glaswegian band Mogwai have spent the past 17 years making what they refer to as ”serious guitar music”: deceptively pretty melodies borne along by vast, fuzzed-out, symphonic guitar and bass. Their debut, the rapturously-received 1997's Young Team, is a high-water-mark of the 90's post-rock movement, an astounding marriage of Loveless-esque shoegaze and the slow, snarling aggression of Slint's Spiderland. Since then they have remained busy, recording seven other studio albums, seven BBC sessions with John Peel, three soundtracks, and a host of EP's, all the while remaining vigorously disdainful of the exercise in affected ennui and disconnectedness that is the UK music scene, viz. frontman Stuart Braithwaite's public statements about Blur (“I'll go to court as someone who has studied music so I can prove they are shite”) and the Scottish happy-hardcore movement (“the worst music in the world”).
Rave Tapes, their latest studio effort, finds Mogwai adding synthesizers to their traditional guitar-based wall-of-sound style. The album begins subtly, with rhythmic chimes over a languid guitar riff on ”Heard About You Last Night," then segueing into “Simon Ferocious," a somewhat unfocused jam driven by Dominic Aitchison's bass. Lead single “Remurdered” is a highlight: its length gives it time to build up a head of steam, and by the four-minute mark the track rejoices in the fierce confluence of an ominous synth riff, ear-splitting bass, and howling guitars. “Repelish” features a spoken-word piece—a monologue on the dangers of backmasked subliminal messages in “Stairway to Heaven," credited in the liner notes to a Reverend Lee Cohen1. Mogwai have used spoken-word pieces effectively in their previous work (“Janet”), but here it comes off as boring at best and sneering and sophomoric at worst. The rest of the album is similarly muddled, with the notable exceptions of the exhilarating last minute of “Master Card” and the haunting dirge of closer “The Lord Is Out of Control”.
As Mogwai have aged, their songs have grown shorter: whereas in 1997 they were satisfied with jamming on the same gigantic crescendo for sixteen minutes ("Mogwai Fear Satan," the glorious Young Team closer), the average song length on Rave Tapes is only five minutes. That's not a lot of time for a post-rock song to really get its legs: Mogwai make big music, behemothic tunes that need to warm up before they can really start sonically assaulting things2. In their more recent efforts—2011's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will and the 2013 soundtrack to the French television drama Les Revenants—they overcame this limitation by experimenting with tempo: Hardcore was fast, punchy, uncharacteristically brisk, whereas Les Revenants was slow, muted, and menacing. But on Rave Tapes they've returned to their normal slow tempo while keeping the tracks short. As a result, the album feels mispaced, the band skipping gaily from groove to groove without letting themselves get too well-acquainted with any individual riff or theme. A sense of purposelessness pervades the album, which is upsetting, as Mogwai's fierce sense of purpose was what set them apart from the sometimes aimless noodling of their contemporaries like Fly Pan Am or Esmerine.
Laboring under the shadow of a classic debut album is an unenviable task—just ask Nas or the Strokes. Mogwai have done an admirable job of fighting to surpass Young Team, especially in light of the decreased popularity of heavy instrumental rock, but on Rave Tapes they sound uninspired, as though they're bored by the challenge of staying relevant in the era of dubstep and electropop. It's not a bad album on its own merits, but compared to the dizzying heights of their discography, it's ultimately forgettable—which, for a band capable of truly memorable music, is tragic.
Considering the fact that the only Google results for Cohen's name are references to Rave Tapes, I think it fair to assume the Reverend is fictional.↩
Mogwai look like paragons of brevity compared to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who made an excellent 90-minute double album consisting of four songs total.↩