The Sound of Stars
On Mogwai Young Team and the Philosophy of Hope
One of the things that missing from the discussion of post-rock so far has been the role of humor. Hope is an orientation towards the future, but I worry that trying to think about hope in this way makes it serious -- po-faced and a rather somber affair. But this runs counter to real-life experience - some of the times that we might feel that sense of the future opening up, of possibility, of that anticipatory consciousness, are moments of joy, of laughter, and of celebration. All of this happens in bleak, dark times too -- sometimes laughter is most necessary when the world is at its worst if only to establish, for a brief moment, the impermanence of the horrors around us. John Berger’s achingly beautiful novel To The Wedding underscores this as a story about a young woman dying from AIDS closes on the laughter and joy of her wedding. If there can’t be joy or a sense of humor in the future then what kind of bleak anhedonic future might come crashing down on us. There’s another really useful function to humor, to laughter as well -- it can be a weapon to use against your enemies too. Mogwai gets this. Back in the late 1990s when British guitar music was choking under the smug emptiness of Britpop, Mogwai launched a new range of merch for their gig at T in the Park - they were headlining one stage, whilst at the same time, Blur were headlining the main stage. The T-shirts simply read “blur: are shite.”
Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite explained “We decided to proclaim our dislike of one of the weakest bands on the planet by putting out these shirts. We sold out in one day and Super Furry Animals and Pavement have put in an order for more. The thing about the shirt is it’s like a dictionary definition. Blur: Are Shite. It’s factual and if there’s any legal problems about it I’ll go to court as someone who has studied music so I can prove they are shite.”
Let’s be clear because there are two things about this worth stating as directly as possible. One, this is fucking funny and two, this is absolutely true. This is exactly what I mean when it comes to the role of humor in hope. Through the negation of the present, you open the space for a potentially new future. If you are at a party, when everyone around you is celebrating, there is something useful and necessary about being the ones who take the time to point out that actually, all of this is shite and someone has to say it, and if you are going to get people to listen, you may as well get them to laugh first.
This brings up the band’s debut album Mogwai Young Team which showcases a good sense of self-awareness. The first track, “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” opens with a review from a Bergen student newspaper, being recited by a friend of the group. There’s something endearing, self-aware, and wryly funny about them using a student review, that’s full of bombast. “If someone said that Mogwai are the stars I would not object. If the stars had a sound it would sound like this” runs the review. And what a sound it is, a simple two-note guitar melody, bright and clean, to layer over the top of the bass work. Three minutes in, there’s a little more melodic complexity and in the background an absolute mountain of noise before the crescendo that absolutely just rocks. The roof opens up and the scope of the track is just stunningly wide and vast. Everything starts to fade out leaving just the backward audio of someone telling a series of filthy stories. It’s such a great introduction to the band, grand, the sound of the stars but still never losing its sense of humor.
After that, I can kind of see why certain critics saw the next track, the eleven-minute ‘Like Herod’, as being somewhat superfluous. It’s a huge lolloping track, all bass riffs and counter melodies which absolutely smashes you over the head around three minutes in just as you might think it’s died down somewhat. Just as you think the track isn’t really going anywhere everything just EXPLODES before lapsing into another quiet stretch but even there the feeling of tension, of impending noise never quite dissipates. At a live gig, it would be a track to tear fucking faces off. If the previous track was Mogwai introducing themselves with fun, this track is about the sound of the stars at night. Brooding, dark, and introspective it provides something of a counterpoint to the album opener and drives home the point that whilst they might be up for laugh, don’t you dare laugh at them. But this album isn’t all either piss-taking or metal noise. What’s most remarkable is the way in which the music doesn’t collapse into this binary dualism but manages to also contain moments of great sensitivity and beauty. “Katrien” keeps the tension of the bass riffs, but there are also spoken vocals, low in the mix and almost drowned out by the music. In that uncertainty, you hear snatches of what sounds like someone telling you about reading Nietzsche: “Last time I was reading random books, I met an interesting man called Frederick, told me that many people die too late and a few too early. Should try to let them die at the right time. Don’t become a domestic animal, a herd animal, a sick human animal … For death is no festival…” What is so interesting is the way this move from the album opener to fragments of philosophy heard through noise feels so unified and authentic -- there is so much here, but the album doesn’t feel overstuffed with ideas or incoherent but emerges with distinct artistic coherence and allows the band to steer past the collapse into one-dimensionality that Sigur Ros were unable to escape by the mid-2000s.
The band uses recorded conversation again on the light touch and delicate song “Tracey” as snatches of mundane conversation are recast into something melancholic and philosophical. Then again comes “R U Still In 2 it” another beautiful song, with a simple guitar melody and Aidan Moffat almost singing, almost reciting poetry over the top. It’s a bleak, almost heart-broken anti-love song, as Moffat asks his partner “Are you still into it?/ 'cause I'm still into it.” It’s defiant in the face of love collapsing into non-committal commitment. As Stuart Braithwaite sings over the chorus: “Will you still miss me, when I'm gone?/Is there love there, even when I'm wrong?/Will you still kiss me, if you find out?/I will now leave you but don't follow me.” What is so impressive about this whole album is the way that a band as exuberant and funny as Mogwai write about heartbreak and the entire range of human experiences from the mundane (“Tracey”) to the emotional (“R U Still In 2 It”) to the philosophical (Katrein”) whilst maintaining a clear sense of who they are and what they want their music to do.
The album closer, the magnificently titled Mogwai Fear Satan ties everything together. Like “Like Herod” it is another absolutely colossal track and layers everything together so perfectly. The drum work particularly stands out and the flute that can be heard in the quieter moments really does a lot to provide some contrast to the bursts of aggression that emerge throughout the sixteen minutes. What is so interesting about the album considered from the point of view of hope as a concept and idea is the way in which hope and catharsis move through the aspects of all human existence. To be hopeful is not a feeling or simply an attitude that one takes upon oneself. It is an existential mode of consciousness that cannot but help influence all aspects of life. It is both that which transforms the future, but equally as importantly possesses the capacity to change our mundane present into something else - the sound of stars, heard all around.
LISTEN HERE: https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lUd1f1RYuKkjjKvKa_LAJHC4nTwwmv7Xk