The Hawk is Howling
2 out of 5 stars
There’s a genuine risk of dissatisfaction when a music fan places too much faith in his or her favorite band’s art. By pronouncing a certain band as one of the best talents within their given genre, fans make it nearly impossible for said band to match — and especially exceed — expectations when releasing a new album. While a few select musical endeavors actually possess the necessary skill to carry a decade-long career without growing stale, these bands are few and far between. However, it is a high challenge for these bands to venture further into their art and produce truly unique song collections as the years continue to span. Some groups — like Radiohead — have mastered this illusive craft, while many more fail to adapt.
The Scottish post-rock powerhouse Mogwai has unwittingly fallen into this aforementioned trap of unattainable expectations with their newest release The Hawk Is Howling. Widely trumpeted as the reigning torch-carriers of the post-rock subgenre, the band carries the burden of living up to their own illustrious back-catalogue, which includes some of the most stunning pieces of music of the past decade. The quintet’s first album — the 1997 classic Mogwai Young Team — introduced the band’s unique blend of atmospheric tension, off-set by the sharp contrast of loud beats and soft pitches. Many of the band’s songs clocked in at over ten minutes in length, but that never worked against them. The band needed this time to build its trademark tension and take listeners on a euphoric ride through musical soundscapes. And it did it all without vocals, allowing the music alone to entrance.
Mogwai’s spectacular debut is followed by five subsequent releases, each building on the last and culminating with their newest record. Despite a stellar production team and a two-year gap since the band’s last release, The Hawk Is Howling sounds like Mogwai’s most lackluster collection to date. While the band’s previous efforts thrived on their lyric-less foundation, Mogwai’s newest release could have benefited from a verse — or ten. Opening with the cleverly titled “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” the band makes a bold attempt to recapture the aura and grandeur of their previously released epics. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t match the band’s set quality standard. Rather than pull its listener immediately into its grasp, the track consists of an overly long piano-based intro before progressing into a hypnotic keyboard climax, well after its audience begins to lose interest.
The album’s unexciting opener characterizes the bulk of its remaining songs. Another less-than-awe-inspiring choice is “Daphne and the Brain,” which struggles to carry its repetitive guitar strings across the five-minute mark. Rather than build upon its previous tension — as the band had done on previous records — the track stagnates and fails to achieve its goal of epic sublimity. While these cuts cannot be decisively categorized as “boring” or “unimaginative,” they lack the mesmerizing quality that defined the band’s first few releases.
With its latest disc, Mogwai surely sought to recapture the lengthy lushness that first put it on the post-rock map. The band occasionally succeeds in reclaiming its trademark aura, though these triumphs sound more like regurgitations of “Auto Rock” instead of wholly original sound bites. The eight-minute long “Scotland’s Shame” fits this category, by featuring intriguing distortions over a tame keyboard and powerful drum beats. The song is possibly the album’s closest attempt at a home run, carefully balancing its synthesized key strokes to the song’s gloomy mood.
These distinctive contrasts are what Mogwai does best. Its latest album would have soared had the band experimented with these sharp distinctions. Instead it recorded unnecessarily-long intros and repetitive guitar riffs simply for the sake of clocking in at over five minutes. Although The Hawk Is Howling qualifies as a noble attempt by Mogwai to recover their signature atmospheric style, the record sounds more hollow than their previous attempts.