, February 28th, 2013 09:39
Can you preface an album review with a spoiler alert? In this instance the review is for the soundtrack to a TV series, a medium where people go absolutely nuts if you reveal even the smallest plot detail before they've seen it, so it seems fitting. So here goes – if you are a serious fan of Mogwai, go and buy this album and don't read anything about it before you do. Go. Now.... Have you gone yet? OK, now for the rest of you doubters who need some words of reassurance before you part with your hard earned – well, you will miss out on the impact of hearing a Mogwai album that always threatens to unleash the full and furious power of the band going at it full tilt without that actually happening. The suspense of waiting for the unholy sonic assault with which they have made their name and it never actually materialising makes this a truly tense listening experience, which in turn also makes it the perfect soundtrack to Les Revenants, a French TV series about zombies. Zombies, you see, are a bit shit really – they can't, or shouldn't be able to, run very fast and are pretty easy to kill (as anyone who has watched small kids in various zombie flicks and TV series over the years effortlessly despatching the undead with biros and twigs and the like), so the tension needs to come from elsewhere. The threat that there might be an army of them waiting around the corner and what that might entail – that's the really scary bit, and Mogwai recreate that fearful sense of dread by holding back on what they do best.
Mogwai totally understand the subtleties of composition. Over the course of their predominantly vocal-free 17-year career they have perfected the art of creating a mood solely with their instruments; gently toying with your emotions before unleashing the behemoth of noise. But the whole point of a soundtrack is to accompany the film (or TV series) and drive it along from the backseat. It isn't meant to take over the whole affair – it is an accompaniment; a functional element used to manipulate the way that an audience views the action on screen. I haven't actually seen Les Revenants yet (come on BBC Four, pull your finger out), but I have it on good authority that it's pretty damn good. That authority is Mogwai themselves – as I have mentioned before (and will again), the Scots post-rockers don't put their name to anything unless it is le merde. And besides, Le Monde said Les Revenants marked “a resurgence in the fantasy genre" and Libération compared it to Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks! But the sign of a really brilliant soundtrack is that it should be able to transcend unfamiliarity with the source material and what Mogwai have come up with definitely does that. In fact, if this was the new Mogwai album without a TV series to hang it from, nobody would complain.
“We tried to keep the rock to a minimum," the band's guitarist John Cummings told this venerable organ in an interview last year, which is a bit like hearing Scissor Sisters say, “We decided to hold back on the camp with this album", or M.I.A. saying, “I've eschewed the ill-advised politicking on this one." So is a Mogwai album without any rock any cop? Yes, of course it is. In an interesting twist on the usual process, the band started work on the soundtrack prior to the series starting filming. “They described it as inspiring them," Cummings revealed. “They wanted some kind of musical mood in place before they started, so we were working a bit dry at first ... we'd (only) seen the first couple of scripts in English." Not a bad call by the programme makers, as surely anything that inhales even a molecule of Mogwai's brilliance should be worth watching.
'Hungry Face' is the perfect scene setter. One of those glorious, twinkling Barry Burns piano motifs is backed by spartan percussion – a drum stick tapped on the rim of the drum. It builds slowly, adding a mournful, aching cello and a beautiful, cyclical guitar riff. It continues to build momentum, the drums clatter in, it swells and you're waiting for the chair over the back of the head, the surprise chainsaw attack… and…. nothing. It just peters out. The cunning fuckers. 'The Huts' works in a similar way but is more redolent of something from Mogwai Young Team but without the frenzy, all slow-burning, dischordant strumming and mordant pianos. Later on, 'Portugal' is the one that really threatens to lose its fucking rag as the otherworldly menace is ramped up, with a buzzsaw guitar lurking in the background, waiting to pounce. But again, it remains coiled; concealed. The very model of restraint compared to something like 'Like Herod'.
Elsewhere, the debt to John Carpenter and his soundtrack to Assault On Precinct 13 is evident, especially on 'Jaguar' with its ominous piano that sits uneasily over a throbbing pulse, and 'This Messiah', a creepy analogue synth drone. The wistful strings of 'Special N' are a welcome break in the tension, sounding vaguely optimistic after the oppressive mood that has gone before – a triumphant riff asserts this atmosphere. 'Reflective Hysteria' is a rambling Aidan Moffat rant away from being an Arab Strap song, the simple synth melodies of 'Eagle Tax' recall Boards of Canada scoring a David Lynch film, while the spooky 'Fridge Magic' is the soundtrack to a scene in which a wide-eyed E.T. opens a fridge and pulls out a can of Tennant's Extra – hey, without seeing the source material, it's fun to start making up your own visual complement. The solitary vocal track, 'What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?', could be from a completely different album – a gorgeous, countrified cover of a Washington Phillips song that sounds like a Palace Brothers' outtake. This ray of gospel dark/light is followed by the closing 'Wizard Motor', which is more in keeping with the mood of the rest of the soundtrack and is almost Beak>-like with its liturgical organ, gnarly bass and propulsive Krautrock drum machines.
As music, not film, is my real business, it seems fitting to be assisted in a closing statement by somebody who knows what they are talking about. Writing for Mouth London in 2012, Maria Lopez Jareno identified the true significance of a film's soundtrack: “If there is a contradiction between image and music, music will always win, because it connects with the audience immediately and subconsciously and at a deeper level. The audience doesn't question music; they just assume it and believe it. We won't be able to see a beautiful landscape if we are hearing apocalyptic music."
The majority of Mogwai's recorded output to date has been all about the apocalypse; their towering, monolithic walls of distorted guitars a readymade soundtrack to the end of the world. But with the soundtrack to Les Revenants, they have created a work of aural tension; a masterclass in how implied threat is far more effective than a million scary monsters. The apocalypse never comes, but you are always fearful that it might be lurking just around the corner.