Glasgow's Mogwai are, in my mind, one of the better examples of the sheer power of instrumental music. They, along with Pelican and Mono are among the more interesting bands working without the net of a vocalist. The result is that the guitarist cannot repeat the same chords and trust that the vocalist will keep the song interesting; and instead of one instrument -- the vocals -- to carry a song, you're suddenly forced to choose between four or five.
Over their decade-long existence, the band has toyed with bombast (Young Team, Come on Die Young) and restraint (Happy Songs and Rock Action) and has been particularly adept at ensuring that the emphasis is on the rock in post-rock. A half-dozen albums that have been starkly different yet clearly influenced by the loud/soft dynamics of the Pixies, the walls of sound of My Bloody Valentine and a steadfast allegiance to the brilliant noise of Touch and Go's Slint.
While Rock Action and Happy Songs were solid recordings, they did come from a particularly quiet, albeit quite beautiful place. So
with Mr.Beast, the band's fifth proper recording, the band had promised to bring back much of the pyrotechnics and power that many felt was missing from those two records. In some cases, this is true, but in many others, the sound is not so much like the swirling compositions of Young Team as it is like a proper rock album, complete with almost conventional song structures and some of the more straightforward riff-based tracks that they've produced.
The opener, "Auto Rock" is subdued, all piano and slowly burning crescendo, but the next is an economical three-and-a-half minutes, and gets straight to the point. When the band slows down for some big guitar crunch, you can almost imagine the vocalist taking a sip of water. The next few songs maintain much of this feel; the band is writing songs, not "pieces" anymore. It isn't until "Friend of the Night" that the band breaks the five-minute mark, and produces a song of the kind of epic proportions we expect.
"I Choose Horses," the second to last track on a very short album, includes guest vocals from Japanese hardcore/noise act Envy, Tetsuya Fukagawa. If Mogwai weren't already bursting with credibility, spoken word from a group of unsung heroes like Envy certainly wouldn't hurt. The track manages a kind of cinematic flair, like the narration at the end of some epic film. The closer, "We're No Here" is a song that Rivers Cuomo has been dying to write since Pinkerton, albeit without vocals.
Overall, the album is distinctly different than anything the band has done before; an emphasis on more conventional song structures and the newfound ability to pack so much more into a shorter track makes for a very compelling listen for those new to the band. The renewed emphasis of both explosive dynamics and strong melodies is likewise exciting for long-time fans.
A highly satisfying, highly recommended full-length and one of the first great albums of 2006.