Last year’s Burning documentary captured Scotland’s Mogwai in a particularly seething mood. Shot starkly in black and white, the film showcased the volatile side of the Mogwai songbook, with The Hawk Is Howling‘s cacophonous “Batcat” providing a suitably visceral finale. Since Mogwai chose to present themselves at their heaviest, I figured that 2011 would be the year that the art-rock vets would embrace their somewhat unfashionable metal influences and push their sound to the next plateau of amp-blowing menace—a wager I took to be more or less confirmed when they announced their new album’s hilariously foreboding title, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.
As it turns out, the album finds Mogwai going easier on the ears than they have since 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People. Washed-out electronic textures, vocodered singing, and gentle piano envelop much of the album in a pastoral haze, and while Mogwai’s signature guitar dynamics are both present and predictably melodramatic, they eschew the balls-out heavy-metal tantrums that Burning so capably highlighted. Feedback and distortion gather like clouds on “Rano Pano” and “Death Rays,” but the storm never breaks. And when the band’s three guitarists let loose on “George Square Thatcher Death Party” (a strong contender for best song title of the year) and “How to Be a Werewolf,” they opt for melodic phrasings that owe as much to Slash as they do to Sonic Youth.
With only one track exceeding seven minutes, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is also among the most concise and well-paced albums in Mogwai’s catalogue. Coming from nearly any other act, an opening salvo of five- and six-minute songs would feel bloated and gratuitous, but this is a band whose fan favorites include thunderous 16-minute marathons and painstakingly austere compositions built around single riffs and arpeggios. In that context, a track like “Mexican Grand Prix,” which sprints through its five-minute runtime on a rollicking, almost pop-punk drumbeat, is a welcome example of self-editing.
What’s more, the shift toward shorter songs seems to have prompted a new compositional tack, one far less dependent on the theatrical build-and-release dynamics which have doomed a few too many of the band’s self-styled epics to predictability. Only with the album’s closer, “You’re Lionel Richie,” does Mogwai tread back to the murky waters first plunged by Slint, but at that point, they’ve withheld long enough that any fan will be positively aching for the sturm und drang. Hell, they’ll probably be disappointed that Mogwai manages to gather and expel their wrath in a mere eight-and-a-half minutes.