Earlier this year, Glasgow’s very own Mogwai released their eighth studio album Rave Tapes. This was their first album in three years, since the release of Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. However, during that three year period, Mogwai had been busy. They contributed the soundtrack to the French television series Les Revenants which was recently nominated for 2014s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. This wasn’t the first soundtrack Mogwai had written. No. Quite the opposite.
Previously, Mogwai provided the soundtrack to the 2006 movie Zidane: A 21st Century Soundtrack. The same year, Mogwai collaborated with Clint Mansell on the soundtrack to The Fountain. Les Revenants was just latest project Mogwai had been involved with during their nineteen year career. So, before I tell you about Les Revenants, I’ll tell you about one of Scotland’s biggest and best bands Mogwai.
Mogwai’s roots can be traced to Glasgow in April 1991. That’s where guitarist Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison first met. Four years later, they met drummer Martin Bulloch and formed Mogwai, which film buffs will remember, is a character from the movie Gremlins. Mogwai was always meant as a temporary name, but it stuck and was on the label of their 1996 debut single Tuner. It was released to critical acclaim and the NME awarded it their single of the week award. Two other singles were released during 1996 Angels v. Aliens and Summer. By then Mogwai were a quartet.
Guitarist John Cummings joined the band in 1995. He’s also something of a maestro when it comes to all things technical and is described as playing “guitar and laptop.” He was part of one of the hottest bands of the late nineties, Mogwai who released two more singles in 1997.
These two singes were New Paths To Helicon Pt. 1 and Club Beatroot. Just like their debut single Tuner, New Paths To Helicon Pt. 1 was won NME’s single of the week award. This was the perfect time for Mogwai to record their debut album, Mogwai Young Team.
For Mogwai Young Team, Mogwai brought onboard Brendan O’Hare the Teenage Fanclub’s drummer. Another guest artist was Aidan Moffat of Falkirk based band Arab Strap. He added the vocal to R U Still In 2 It. The rest of Mogwai Young Team consisted of instrumentals. Mogwai Young Team was recorded at Chem 19 studios and produced by ex-Delgado Paul Savage and Andy Miller, one of Scotland’s top producers. Once Mogwai Young Team was completed, it was released on Scotland’s biggest record label, Chemikal Underground.
On its release in October 1997, critics were one over by Mogwai Young Team. Mogwai were hailed Mogwai as a band with a big future. Mogwai Young Team was a groundbreaking album of post-rock, which sold over 30,000 copies and reached number seventy-five in the UK. The Mogwai Young Team were on their way. However, a few changes were about to take place.
A year later, Mogwai were back in the studio recording their sophomore album Come On Die Young. Much had changed. A new member had joined the band. Barry Burns a flautist and sometimes pianist, had played a few gigs with the band. They then asked him to become the fifth member of Mogwai. Violinst Luke Sutherland joined Mogwai, but not on a full-time basis. This wasn’t the only change.
Recording was split between New York and Glasgow. This time, they’d forsaken Chem 19 in Blantyre and recorded parts of the album in Tarbox Road Studios, New York. Some sessions took place in Glasgow’s Cava Studios. Producing Come On Die Young was Dave Fridman. Some critics felt his production style resulted in a much more orthodox sounding album. However, I’d argue that Come On Die Young was part of Mogwai discovering their “sound” and direction. Come On Die Young is a much more understated, but also ambient, experimental, multi-textured and melodic. There’s a fusion of ambient, grunge and post rock on Come On Die Young, which was released in March 1999. It reached number twenty-nine in the UK. Mogwai it seemed were now on their way to finding their sound and fulfilling the potential evident on their debut album.
Mogwai’s music continued to evolve on their third album 2001s Rock Action. More use was made of electronics on Rock Action. This was part of a process that would continue over the next few albums. There were even more layers and textures on Rock Action. It was as if Mogwai had expanded their palette. Seven of the songs were instrumentals, while Dial Revenge featured Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals.
Again, Rock Action was produced by Dave Fridman, while recording took place in New York and at Glasgow’s Cava Studios. Once Rock Action was completed, it became Mogwai’s first album to be released on Play It Again Sam.
Rock Action was released in April 2001, and proved to be Mogwai’s most successful album. It reached number twenty-three in the UK. Critics remarked upon how Rock Action wasn’t as dark an album as its predecessors. That didn’t mean that Mogwai’s view of the world had changed. They were still worldweary. Soon, they’d be happy people writing happy songs and making a breakthrough into the American market.
Happy Songs For Happy People was released in 2003. Mogwai’s evolution continued. Their music continued further down the electronic road. Yes, electric guitars and a drummer were used, but synths were playing a more important role in Mogwai’s music. So were the addition of strings and a piano. They played their part in what was a much more understated album. Part of this change in style was a change of producer.
Tony Doogan was brought onboard as producer. He replaced Dave Fridman. Gone were transatlantic recording sessions. Happy Songs For Happy People was recorded at Cava Sound Studios, Glasgow. On its release in June 2003, Happy Songs For Happy People was well received by critics. They welcomed the change in style. So did record buyers. While Happy Songs For Happy People only reached number forty-seven in the UK, it spent a week in the American charts, reaching number 182 in the US Billboard 200. After four albums, Mogwai had broken into the American market. Happy Songs For Happy People it seemed, was a landmark album.
Having made inroads into the lucrative American market, Mogwai didn’t rush their fifth album. It was released three years after Happy Songs For Happy People. There’s a reason for this. They were working on tree separate projects. The first was their fifth album Mr. Beast. Then there was the first soundtrack they’d written and recorded. This was for the 2006 movie Zidane: A 21st Century Soundtrack. Mogwai also collaborated with Clint Mansell on the soundtrack to The Fountain. Although soundtracks were a nice sideline for Mogwai, their fifth album Mr. Beast was of huge importance. Especially, if it was a commercial success in America.
Mr. Beast was released in March 2006. It had been recorded at Mogwai’s new studio, Castle Of Doom Studios in Glasgow. Recording took place between April and October 2005, with Tony Doogan and Mogwai producing Mr. Beast. On its release, it was mostly, to critical acclaim. Critics were fascinated at how Mogwai’s music continued to evolve. For Mogwai, standing still was going backwards. Ever the innovaors, they were rewarded by an album that reached number thirty-one in the UK and number 128 in the US Billboard 200. Mogwai were now one of Scotland’s most successful musical exports. They were certainly Scotland’s most innovative band. This was a title they weren’t going to give up without a fight.
To ensure they kept their title of Scotland’s most innovative bands, Mogwai returned to the studio where it all began, Chem 19 in Blantyre. Andy Miller who’d co-produced Mogwai Young Team, Mogwai’s debut album was chosen to produce what became The Hawk Is Howling. This was Mogwai’s sixth album and marked a first. It was Mogwai’s first album to consist of just instrumentals. Once The Hawk Is Howling was recorded, Garth Jones mixed the album at Castle Of Doom Studios in Glasgow. After that, The Hawk Is Howling was ready for release.
The Hawk Is Howling was released in September 2008. Critics were won over by The Hawk Is Howling. There were no dissenting voices. This was one of Mogwai’s best albums. So, it’s no surprise it sold well in the UK and America, reaching number thirty-five in the UK and number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 200. It seemed with each album, Mogwai’s music evolved and matured. This resulted in even more success coming their way. Would this continue with Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will?
For their seventh album, Mogwai returned to Chem 19 Studios in Blantyre, where they hooked up with ex-Delgado Paul Savage. Since he’d produced Mogwai’s debut album, Mogwai Young Team Paul had established a reputation as one of Scotland’s best producers. He’d worked with everyone from Franz Ferdinand, Admiral Fallow and Camera Obscura to R.M. Hubbert. However, it was a very different Mogwai Paul encountered. They were very different to the band who recorded Mogwai Young Team. Their music had evolved and was continuing to do so. They’d matured as musicians and embraced the new technology. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was proof of this.
Here was an album of groundbreaking, genre-melting post-rock with attitude. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was also an album not short on humour. Especially, with tracks about poppy soulster Lionel Ritchie and Scotland’s nemesis Margaret Thatcher. With a combination of pioneering, post rock music crammed full of hooks, humour and attitude, surely Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will couldn’t fail?
Yet again, Mogwai had won over critics with Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. It reached number thirty-five in the UK and number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 200. For Mogwai, they were now into their third decade as band and had just enjoyed their biggest album to date. What next?
The answer to that was Les Revenants, a soundtrack to a French television series. Les Revenants or The Returned is essentially a television program about zombies. Unlike similar programs, when the “undead” return to the town they lived in, it’s as they were, not how most films portray zombies. Another difference was the way Mogwai were commissioned.
Usually, someone writing a soundtrack can see the film they’re writing music to. Not Mogwai. They were just shown a few scripts. Then they were given an overview of what the series was about. From there, Mogwai wrote thirteen tracks. The other track they chose was What Are They Doing In Heaven Today, which was written by Charles Elbert Tilney. These fourteen tracks were recorded by Mogwai, who produced Les Revenants with Neil MacMenamin. Once Les Revenants was finished, it was released in February 2013.
Before Les Revenants was released an E.P. was released. It featured four tracks. That was a tantalising taster of what was to come. After all, Mogwai would approach a soundtrack like Les Revenants in a different manner. They wouldn’t do anything predictable. Les Revenants was a case of expect the unexpected. Critics loved Les Revenants and hailed the album as one of the best albums Mogwai had released. However, why was that?
Earlier, I described Mogwai’s music as multi-textured. That’s the case on Les Revenants. It’s an album of constantly shifting moods, full of nuances, subtleties and surprises. I’d also describe the music as dramatic and disturbing, right through to melancholy and menacing. Having said that, it’s also music that has a warmth and is ethereal. Another important way to describe Les Revenants is cinematic.
Here is music that paints pictures. Close your eyes, allow your imagination to run riot and Les Revenants appear before your eyes. This is the case from the moody drama of Hungry Face. It’s a fusion of ambient, electronica, indie rock and post rock. You can imagine the opening titles to Les Revenants rolling as the tension and drama builds. This drama continues on Jaguar. It builds and grows, washes of synths and piano joining a pulsating beat. It’s moody, dark and most importantly dramatic.
The Huts is very different to the previous tracks. It has a much more understated, spacious sound. Just pensive, tender driven post rock guitar and melancholy piano play their part in an ethereal, cinematic track. Kill Jester is another understated track. It’s a piano driven track, that builds and grows. Again it has an ethereal and melancholy quality. Then later, the track takes on a celestial quality.
There’s a change in style on This Messiah Needs Watching. Menacing, moody and dramatic, it’s a track that builds. Feedback is sprayed across the arrangement while a meandering piano and keyboards combine. Searing guitars add to the tension. One wonders what scene this accompanies, given the tension that’s building?
Thoughtful and spacious describes Whisky Time. It’s one of the shortest tracks on Les Revenants and has a pensive and contemplative quality. So does Special N. That’s partly because of the melancholy strings and chiming guitar. Drums provide a thoughtful heartbeat before the drama and tension builds. Still it’s a beautiful, ethereal track. Just like Whisky Time, Relative Hysteria is another track that’s slow, spacious and thoughtful. Just chiming guitars, keyboards and beats combine, before shimmering guitars glisten. They play their part in an atmospheric, evocative soundscape. Minimalist and moody describes Fridge Magic. Percussion, synths and cinematic string create a multilayered arrangement. It meanders dramatically along proving captivating. The cinematic synths make a reappearance on Portugal. So do droning synths and a keyboards. Soon, the track veers between understated to dramatic and disturbing, but is always cinematic.
Eagle Tax is played on a Fender Rhodes, producing a wistful introduction. Soon, guitars reverberate, reminding me of the soundtrack to a Wim Wenders film. That can only mean two men, Ry Cooder or Irmin Schmidt of Can. There’s even a similarity to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks’ soundtrack. Soon, the Fender Rhodes and guitar are joined by drums as one of the most evocative, atmospheric and dramatic tracks unfolds.
Modern is totally unlike anything that’s gone before. Buzzing, droning synths and searing guitars join forces, while melancholy strings and meandering keyboards compete for your attention. Somehow, the track is dramatic, understated and ethereal simultaneously.
There’s a country sound to What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? Just a piano, guitars and steady beat provide the backdrop for a melancholy, pensive vocal. It’s tender, emotive and full of pain and frustration. This results in a truly beautiful, soul-searching song.
Wizard Motor closes Les Revenants and sees Mogwai throw another curveball. After the droning, dramatic and then melancholy introduction, drums pound and scorching, machine gun guitars are unleashed. Mogwai decide now’s the time to combine post-rock, grunge and indie rock as they close Les Revenants on a high. Seamlessly, the fuse musical genres and drama. There’s even avant-garde, electronica, experimental and folk thrown into the mix, as Mogwai, forever the innovators close Les Revenants on a dramatic, rocky high.
Ever since they released their debut album Mogwai Young Team in 1996, Mogwai have established a reputation as one of the most innovative groups of the past thirty years. During this period, Mogwai had sought to constantly reinvent themselves. Standing still it seems, isn’t an option. As a result, with each album Mogwai’s music evolves. Sometimes, it’s as if you’re listening to another band. That’s the case on Les Revenants.
Les Revenants is best described as a cinematic Magnus Opus. It’s an album of ambitious, bold, challenging, influential and innovative music. This is music full of nuances, subtleties and surprises. During fourteen tracks the mood constantly shifts. One minute, the music is wistful, melancholy and pensive, the next dark, disturbing, eerie and moody. By the same token, Les Revenants is sometimes, beautiful and melancholy. The music on Les Revenants tugs at your heartstrings, poses questions and paints pictures. The music is also ambitious, bold, challenging, influential and innovative. Quite simply, Mogwai take you on genre-hopping musical journey.
Over fourteen tracks, Mogwai combine everything from ambient, avant-garde, classical, experimental, folk, grunge, indie-rock and post-rock. This resulted in a genre-melting album, Les Revenants. It’s a mesmeric fusion that captivates and compels. You’re taken on a musical journey, one that veers between dramatic, dreamy, surreal and trippy, to beautiful, pensive, understated and melancholy Other times the music is dramatic, moody and broody. One thing the music never is, is boring.
Not at all. Certainly not with Mogwai providing the soundtrack to Les Revenants. Subtleties and surprises are sprung, while Mogwai aren’t afraid of changing direction. Using the musical equivalent of a handbrake turn, the Mogwai Young Team perform a volte face. That’s what makes Les Revenants such a captivating and refreshing soundtrack. Les Revenants is also one of the best albums Mogwai have recorded. That’s why Les Revenants must be one of the favourites to land Mogwai 2014s Scottish Album Of The Year Award.
- Posted in: Ambient ♦ Country ♦ Indie Pop ♦ Indie Rock ♦ Rock
- Tagged: Chem 19, Come On Die Young, For Mogwai Young Team, Happy Songs For Happy People, Hardcore Will Never Die, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, Les Revenants, Mogwai, Mr. Beast, Rave Tapes, Rock Action, Scottish Album Of The Year Award, Stuart Braithwaite, The Hawk Is Howling