Twenty-five years to the day of releasing debut single Tuner/Lower, Scotland’s beloved post-rockers Mogwai return with their 10th studio album. The aptly named As the Love Continues cements their post-rock dynasty, and bridges their ever-restless sound into yet another. A nostalgic yet quizzical Matt Taylor offers his thoughts.
Anniversaries have a way of spurring introspection; they present an opportunity to both reassess the inciting incident on its own terms and also to reflect on the degree to which you’ve grown and changed since then. For Scottish post-rock luminaries, Mogwai (a band not usually prone to nostalgia or self-mythologising) to choose to draw attention to an anniversary feels like an intentional statement, and maybe even a hint at their current artistic process. The release date of their new album As The Love Continues is set to coincide with the 25th anniversary of their first single, 1996’s Tuner/Lower, and with it, they’ve crafted an album that feels more closely in dialogue with their breakthrough debut than anything they’ve done for years. This is undoubtedly a return to the kind of heart-swelling instrumental rock that was for many teenagers their first experience of music that could evoke an almost Kantian sense of sublime awe through its tectonic dynamics and towering emotional grandeur.
Rather than rehashing past glories, the band’s decades of experience leads them to temper these familiar structures with a deft restraint, skirting the use of sudden ‘loud-soft’ dynamic shifts often dismissed as post-rock clichés and instead of creating a set of songs that ebb and flow in volume and intensity, refusing to offer up their depths of detail immediately. In many ways, this album works as a continuation of themes explored in Mogwai’s stellar 2017 album Every Country’s Sun, with the thread connecting the two being a rekindled relationship with producer Dave Fridmann, who also helmed 1999’s Come On Die Young and 2001’s Rock Action, the albums immediately following their remarkably fully-formed debut.
‘Earthy analog synth tones fill the space left by spindly clean guitars, creating a predominant feeling of interstellar drift.’
Anyone vaguely familiar with Fridmann’s production style knows that it runs hot, and for a band already as sonically dense as this, it could threaten to be overwhelming. In practice, however, Fridmann adds welcome heft to even the sparsest passages and makes the crescendos, of which there are many, feel earth-shattering. Drums are uniformly thunderous, with a particularly characterful snare driving Midnight Flit, and all of this serves to ground the album with a loose, live-in-the-practice-room feel that’s more than welcome after a concert-starved year. At this point in their career, Mogwai have almost as many TV and film soundtracks to their name as studio albums, but with Fridmann behind the boards there is no chance of mistaking this for music intended for the background; the album commands focused listening through its bludgeoning dynamics and thankfully rewards your attention with a wealth of ever-evolving sonic details, such as the hallucinatory vocals barely audible in Pat Stains.
The band’s love affair with synthesizers which began in earnest on 2014’s Rave Tapes is only more foregrounded since the departure of second guitarist John Cummings, but here feels better integrated into the whole than ever before, with earthy analog synth tones filling the space left by spindly clean guitars, creating a predominant feeling of interstellar drift suggested by the (fantastic) title of album opener To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth. The undeniable high-point of the album is Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever, wherein a totally new wrinkle is added to the band’s sound; an incomprehensibly-distorted, vocoded vocal line functions as the lead melodic instrument, evoking images of a heartbroken robot in decay.
The closest comparison I can think of is the ‘vocoder-as-guitar-solo’ coda to Kanye West’s Runaway, or perhaps the digital shoegaze of early M83 (which might finally repay the debt of influence they owe Mogwai for their early sound). It leads to an utterly devastating chorus of pure, non-verbal emoting; combined with the anachronistic bleeping synth rhythm underpinning the whole track, it makes for one of the strongest tracks they’ve released this side of the millennium and points to a new direction I hope to see them explore further in future. While much of the album stays in the expected range of swelling mid-tempo post-rock there are, of course, the odd curveballs; Ritchie Sacramento is the now-familiar Mogwai bait-and-switch lead single, the sole track featuring traditionally ‘rock’ vocals and a standard verse/chorus structure, similar to Party In The Dark from Every Country’s Sun.
While sung well enough and plenty upbeat, the foregrounding of vocals means that instrumental texture and intricacy, their stock and trade, feel somewhat pushed aside. It benefits from being the sole track of this style, a brief island of conventional songcraft, and perhaps a gateway to entice those who wouldn’t seek out purely instrumental music. Elsewhere, Ceiling Granny has a drum lilt and a driven melodic riff that hems close to classic Smashing Pumpkins, and as the shortest track, it makes for an enjoyable and energetic change of pace when set against the slowly unfurling, longer cuts. That said, even the longest track here doesn’t break eight minutes; we’re a long way from the frequent ten-minute-plus opuses of early Mogwai, perhaps attributable to a noticeable lack of found-sound audio excerpts or drifting, freeform ambient sections.
‘Their knack for restraint is arguably more commendable than if they readily caved to the pleasures of guitar chaos.’
This laser-focused structure is not necessarily a bad thing, merely a reflection of the more mature band they have morphed into, and perhaps bleed-through of the no-nonsense professionalism they practice in their soundtrack work. Although part of me still pines for a Mogwai Young Team-style squalling feedback solo to lift tracks like It’s What I Want To Do, Mum and Fuck Off Money to even greater emotional heights, their knack for restraint is arguably more interesting and commendable than if they readily caved to the pleasures of guitar chaos at every given opportunity. It’s a reminder that, while they may have become more comfortable looking back at their past achievements, they aren’t trying to be the same kids they were twenty-five years ago. It’s for this very reason that they’ve outlasted all of their post-rock contemporaries and are able to create such a palimpsest of an album, one that drives their sound forward without ever sacrificing the emotional qualities that made them ‘bigger than words and wider than pictures’ from the start.
Written by: Matt Taylor
Edited by: Alex Duke