With few words, Mogwai continues to break free of the instrumental ghetto 

Let the Music Do the Talking

Let the Music Do the Talking

Further in the tape, declares a voiceover narrator, I came across another part that made me throw my headphones right off my head. I couldn't believe what I heard. Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" again was voted the most popular tune of rock's history. Keep that in mind as I share this taped excerpt with you. In the lyrics of the song, they sing, "The piper is calling you to join him / She's buying the stairway to heaven." This is where the subliminal message comes in that we've been talking about. The subliminal message is a satanic message that was put on the record in reverse ...

This increasingly absurd monologue appears out of nowhere on an otherwise solemn tune about halfway thru Rave Tapes, the new album from Mogwai. Released in the U.S. in January via Sub Pop (in partnership with Mogwai's own label Rock Action), the album further cements the band's position at the cusp between indie/underground repute and mainstream visibility. Also — as if the Glasgow-based quintet hadn't done so already — it proves that a band can play instrumental music without being consigned to lazy descriptors like "cinematic," "post-rock" or "experimental." Mogwai's body of work encompasses all of those things, but much like, say, Tortoise, Uzeda and (perhaps most of all) Trans Am — the band is best understood through the prism of straight-up rock, regardless of how successfully it stretches the standard definition thereof.

One would hope that, in 2014 — thanks in large part to the determined longevity of acts like Mogwai — playing music largely devoid of vocals doesn't automatically put an asterisk next to an artist's name, as if instrumental music were still somehow exotic or "other." Luckily, an ear-shatteringly rude awakening awaits those who attend a Mogwai show with such prejudices in tow. Eight albums and almost 20 years into its career, with an established reputation for experimentalism and dynamic control, the band still wields volume onstage with the ritual devotion we came to take for granted from the likes of The Who and Motörhead.

It's charming to think that playing this music arouses savage instincts in these otherwise stoic, tight-lipped Scotsmen. Tony Kiewel, Mogwai's A&R rep at Sub Pop, had this to report of the band's April 19 appearance at Coachella: "I watched Stuart [Braithwaite, guitarist] become so outraged by the incredible mediocrity of [headliner] Muse, who were performing at that moment, that he smashed a chair. That's definitely been my favorite moment of this campaign so far." As longtime fans already know, Rave Tapes contains no such furniture-smashing moments. Nevertheless, for Mogwai, pulling back on the bludgeoning doesn't equate to the ponderous meandering that often stigmatizes the band's so-called "post-rock" peers. It's been 23 years since Slint's seminal album Spiderland, and Mogwai would have long expended its creative fuel by now had Braithwaite & Co. not found ways to dodge stereotypes established by their influences.

The Police's Andy Summers once told a guitar magazine that he preferred to play "ambiguous" chords (his trademark) because he hates music that "tells you what you're supposed to feel." Listening to Rave Tapes in one sitting, what's immediately striking is how Mogwai is able to exercise discretion while packing a heavy dramatic punch at the same time. Lilting tempos and vaguely somber tones give the music an ever-present sense that something serious is going on inside of it. But the band is so adamant about not dictating the listener's experience that it refuses to name its songs and albums in a way that would even hint at a mood. As is well documented, every single Mogwai song/album title is a joke. An ironically placed rant about backwards messages in "Stairway to Heaven" is about as close to an explanation as you can expect to get from these guys. But that's the thing: They don't set out to capture any specific meaning or even atmosphere in the first place.

Even the overall consistency of the albums falls together in a more or less haphazard manner, with little to no premeditation. On an overseas call with the Scene that essentially revealed nothing, guitarist John Cummings explained: "At the first point where we start to look at the song order, there might be 12 or 15 songs that automatically sit apart from the 20-odd or so that we have. You figure there are some that just seem too strange. So it becomes kind of obvious which ones are more connected."

Arguably, the continuity of Rave Tapes reveals one of Mogwai's strongest suits. Again, it's important to avoid the lazy "soundtrack" tag here. To hear the difference, just listen to the band's scores for the films Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, The Fountain and the French TV series Les Revenants. In the seamless flow of the new album, it's easy to overlook the fact that Mogwai makes album-oriented rock with a modern face — all the more impressive given that the albums are recorded under duress.

"We're always under-prepared to a certain degree," says Cummings. "But it can be pretty good to have to keep thinking about things right up till the last moment. You don't want to have an indefinite amount of time. You need an endpoint. It's good to have a time constraint."

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.


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