Mogwai albums come in three kinds: those on which they mostly focus building long-draw Post-Rock songs (Mogwai Young Team, Come On Die Young, Hawk is Howling), those on which they make more traditional, punchy, verse-chorus-verse Rock songs (Happy Songs For Happy People, Mr. Beast, Rave Tapes), and those on which they try to do both (Rock Action, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will). Critics tend to praise Mogwai most when they stick to the classic, climactic Post-Rock sound, but in my experience fans prefer the lattermost kind of album, the crossover. In 2011, Hardcore Will Never Die came through as a late-career success by integrating catchy Pop-Rock songs to reach a larger audience and anchoring those tracks with heavy, extended instrumental takes that appeal to their Post-Rock fan base. Rave Tapes, their 2014 follow-up, disappointed fans and critics alike because it could provide neither focused Pop nor cathartic Rock. Instead, it ruminated in meandering, muddled electronic ambience. I personally thought Rave Tapes went underrated—there’s something to be said about a big fiery Post-Rock band exploring different textural spaces, taking different roads as they present themselves, and I think Mogwai has covered some of this territory more successfully on their recent soundtrack to Atomic. With that in mind, Mogwai’s new album, Every Country’s Sun clearly sounds like a return to the winning formula of Hardcore Will Never Die and Rock Action—they even reunite with Dave Fridmann, who produced Rock Action and Come On Die Young. But here, the effort falls flat; though the chanting, sing-along bacchanals and raging guitar anthems are all there, they remain only coexistent—contained, tired-sounding retreads of past glory—which makes Every Country’s Sun the least inspired Mogwai album to date.
The first track and lead single from the album, “Coolverine,” begins with a chilly arp synth reminiscent of the electronic elements found on Rave Tapes. A washing synth and gentle bass enter—both trademarks of the ‘00s-Mogwai sound. Crisp guitar and clean kick-snare pattern continue the song’s progressive build—Mogwai use this same cue on “Heard About You Last Night,” the opener on Rave Tapes. The five parts together are particularly imagistic, one is left with the impression of a green mountainside on a cool summer morning—not a foreign landscape to anyone familiar with Mogwai. A few details are added to the drums—a reversed snare accents the end of a loop, then a sputtering high-hat rhythm comes in. The drums calm down and are run through a low-pass filter to anticipate the entrance of a soft bell part and smooth alternately modulating analogue synth—these melodies continue for a few phrases until the drums pick up again for song’s central guitar build and climax. Eventually the guitars break down and a synth line concludes the track. It’s a simple structure, and it’s something Mogwai does well time and time again. The band executes every instrumentation choice, every structural element, and every transition masterfully—and they can do it because they’ve made this same song half-a-dozen times before. It’s disappointing to hear a band known for consistently pushing its sound and challenging its listeners rest on its laurels like this—and this is one of the best tracks on the album.
The following song “Party in the Dark” is the album’s best attempt at a Pop-y paean, but it’s almost a note-for-note remake of the band’s last non-album single, 2014’s rocking “Teenage Exorcists” . They reprise almost every element: the drone-y intro, the enunciated “I”’s at the beginning of each stanza, the Post-Punk eighth-note pulse, the ‘80s vocal reverb. “Party in the Dark” doesn’t rock quite as hard, and its synth solos soften the track on the whole, but structurally and sonically it comes dangerously close to self-plagiarism.
The album’s other lyrical track, “1000 Foot Face” acts as a cool-down track after the blazing intensity of “20 Size.” In that way, its function is similar to Mogwai Young Team’s “R U Still In 2 It”—it uses space and ambience to release the album’s greater tension. And just like on Young Team, that catharsis clears the way for another massive Post-Rock escalation—whereas “R U Still In 2 It” makes room for “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “1000 Foot Face” acts as a palate cleanser before “Don’t Believe the Fife.” On Young Team, the dynamic contrast between the two tracks is palpable—it wrenches your heartstrings to the point of exhaustion, and by the time “Fear Satan” ends, the listener is sonically sated; the album has made its impression, and it’s a powerful one. In contrast, on Every Country’s Sun, there’s no straining emotional friction: “1000 Foot Face” doesn’t grip the listener in a sad breakup-narrative (in fact it’s hard to make out any of the lyrics at all), and “Don’t Believe the Fife” does not reach for the stars—it sounds like just any other Mogwai song. Not to mention, by the time it ends, we still have three more tracks left on the album; whatever function these contrasting tracks’ juxtaposition was supposed to have is diminished by their placement on the album. The transition from “Don’t Believe the Fife” into “Battered at a Scramble” seems almost non sequitur, and whatever cohesion the album had up to that point is lost.
That said, the more exultant songs on Every Country’s Sun are nothing to scoff at. The shifting, turning acceleration of “Crossing the Road Material” drives forward and upward into its soaring guitar acrobatics. It’s a fun, unpredictable ride, and its two-minute comedown exemplifies Mogwai’s penchant for crafting chilling, elegant soundscapes. In fact, Every Country’s Sun’s best songs content themselves with exploring soundscapes instead of building tension. “Aka 47” moves through a martial 4/4 elegiac to a dreamy 6/8 lullaby with a wistful grace Mogwai has only learned to intimate on their past few releases—it’s one of the few songs on this album that seems to break truly new ground. But I’m sure any long-time Mogwai fan listening to that track would ask herself: do I really want one of my favorite Post-Rock bands to make songs that put me to sleep? And what does it mean if those kinds of songs are the best tracks being made by a band that once excited me, kept me on the edge of my seat in anticipation of the next leaping flight or crashing fall?
At this point, Mogwai should be asking themselves those same questions. Post-Rock is a dying genre. Its best bands are running out of punches to pull—hell, Godspeed You! Black Emperor had to make an Earth album just to keep fans interested in 2015. If Mogwai wants to remain a relevant band in going into their third decade of music making, they have to find a way to push their sound; they have to experiment with the same vitality they had in the early ‘00s; they have to learn how to make more than three kinds of album. Another Country’s Sun almost makes its own argument against both Mogwai and more generally Post-Rock’s relevance in 2017.