A problem for post-rock is the assumption that apocalyptic sound must crash and writhe and overwhelm. In the face of the most extreme forms of desperation, the world would more likely end with a whimper, not a bang. Thus, one shouldn’t think of post-rock’s ethos as furious nihilism, but rather an attempt to capture the grandeur of basic human moods—what it means to confront our own meaninglessness and keep on trucking, and fucking, and fighting.
The genre is still young, but the movement’s trailblazers have demonstrated a distressingly predictable pattern: After the band produces a record with several statement tracks, they follow up with a burdened next record that consciously eschews many of the strengths of the first one. Godspeed never recovered after Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven; Explosions in the Sky stumbled with The Rescue and All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone. And does Sigur Rós even qualify as post-rock now that they’ve reinvented themselves as atmospheric pop? Broken Social Scene defied the trend by going big-beyond-belief with their self-titled follow-up to You Forgot It in People, but after “It’s All Going to Break” ended, they indeed broke, fracturing into a half-dozen side projects.
Some have tried to explain Mogwai’s less successful ventures as failing because they could not decide whether they wanted to create shorter, more accessible versions of their long-form aural fireworks. It’s unfair to say Mogwai have attempted to reform themselves as pop, but there’s no doubt that they have struggled with the issue of song length. Young Team established Mogwai as less time-intensive than GY!BE, but the groundbreaking sequences of that record still ventured well into seven-minute-plus territory.
The major problem with their last album, Mr. Beast, was that the crescendos occurred too fast; it didn’t feel like the band, or its audience, earned or deserved those majestic climaxes—it was just a perfunctory fuck frenzying toward completion. Much of the album felt like filler that meandered for the sake of doing something different. The band’s latest, The Hawk is Howling, corrects those flaws. The opening song, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” successfully brings the band back to basics: They embed affecting riffs into their dour-as-Good-Friday dirge template and it pays off. Two minutes of piano chords thaw into hazy atmospherics and reveal the foundation of muscular percussion and gauzy synth-and-guitar tricks. All of which is buttressed by the bombast of the next track, “Batcat.”
Other tracks are a reminder of the lineage of Scottish post-rock: “Local Authority,” though it lacks lyrics, is strongly reminiscent of Arab Strap’s Elephant Shoe/Mad for Sadness era. And in a risky but rewarding move, “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” opts to revise and extend some hooks from the Rock Action track “You Don’t Know Jesus.” The album ends with a clever 22-minute triptych that ensures the band has covered all bases: “Scotland’s Shame” (a reference to Gordon Brown, perhaps?) lumbers and pounds through a solid set of minor-key chord changes and dissolves into the ethereal “Thank You Space Expert” before descending one last time into howl with closer “The Precipice.”
Hawk Is Howling is a reassertion of Mogwai’s strengths and testimony that they are still credible and productive. As a state-of-the-union for the status of post-rock, it proves that there’s some promise left in the pioneers of the genre, though it doesn’t assuage the concern that most of these bands can’t go on much longer building majestic spectacles of nothing made out of something.