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Album Review: Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care [Temporary Residence Ltd.]

Explosions in the Sky have reached what some might call an impasse in their careers. After churning out 5 albums in 7 years, almost all of which featured their signature and exciting instrumental post-rock sound, they simply vanished for a period of time. 2007’s “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone” may not have been their strongest effort, but it did do the best for them sales-wise, a likely response to their relentless cycle of recording and touring over the previous few years. Explosions in the Sky are, after all, a thrill to see live, often attacking their songs four electric guitars at a time and not being shy about meandering into extensive and thrashing solos. When you don’t have any singing or lyrics to back you up, that just puts more pressure to keep crowds engaged in what you’re doing, and these guys handle it better than most vocal-heavy bands. They’re also smart and creative enough to differentiate themselves from a number of their counterparts such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor via the way they approach each song, sticking to their guitars and meandering through soundscapes rather than establishing the long-running dynamic of the slow build to explosive noise. This is the style that has sustained the band for the entirety of their existence, which hasn’t really needed changing because of its originality but nevertheless might have been getting a little tiresome around 2007. So they vanished for just a little bit, hopefully to think about what they’ve done and where they’ve been and if they could creatively sustain themselves for presumably another few records. So unlike the amazing TV show “Friday Night Lights” which they soundtracked, which is ending this year after five seasons, Explosions in the Sky have chosen to return for their sixth record, “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care”.

If you’ve heard an Explosions in the Sky record before, you can take comfort (and care) that “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” doesn’t do anything to change that dynamic. If anything, this new album is more like a reboot of the EITS sound, bringing things back to their most basic elemental core and doing away with any small indulgences that may have been made on the last couple records (see: piano). Once again the carefully crafted songs are distinctive only to this band, and they prove not only to themselves but everyone else that they know exactly what they’re doing. Many other, relatively similar bands have come and gone these last 10 years, but these guys remain because of their tenacity and smart compositions. The power as well, that invisible driving force behind the music, remains intact along with the ability for these songs to evoke strong emotions ranging from a dark sadness to trembling joy and everything in between. While the band does more often than not take the studious approach with 6+ minute passages, at times they’re able to collapse their ideas down to a normal song length, as “Trembling Hands” does with 3.5 minutes of pure energy, a deft pace established at the outset by some heavy percussion and later met with equal vigor by the guitars. The 8 minutes of “Human Qualities” is purely fascinating for the way it slowly spirals downward into near silence before naturally rebuilding to an even stronger place than where it began. The true highlights of the record though come with the final two tracks. After two sparsely plucked electric guitars spend the first three minutes of “Postcard From 1952” meandering and weaving around one another, the drums begin to stir along with the harmonic mixture of the guitars. The notes themselves prove to be just as compelling as two human voices harmonizing on the high and low end of the same note. The heaviness builds to a tipping point, and as the chords begin to reach red levels, there’s a pull back where everything just calms down and peters out. It’s not about denying what might otherwise be viewed as a tension-relieving payout, but rather exercising restraint in the face of mounting pressure. Very few bands can pull that off in a compelling fashion, and Explosions in the Sky is one of them.

What the closing track “Let Me Back In” does is point squarely in the direction of a future for a band that until recently questioning whether it even had one in the first place. Beginning with a highly muffled tape of a woman speaking slowly twists and turns into a soundscape that is at war with itself. One minute it’s subdued and wandering in a daze while the next it’s charging forwards with the force of a thousand elephants complete with machine gun drumming and white noise guitars that consistently pile on top of one another. It is both a spectacular example of where they came from and their roots inspired by way of Mogwai but also marks progression. There are small pieces in the track’s 10 minute duration that mark new and unexplored territory for Explosions in the Sky. The progression of the song itself is more structured and strategic than before, with not only a clear beginning, middle and end, but also a full circle logic where the song ends exactly where it began – with 30 seconds of this muffled woman crying out into the darkness all alone as the world fades to black around her. Not the most pleasant thought, and it’s not the most pleasant song from the band, but not many people listen to this band to be put in a good mood. It’s the epic closer “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” needs though. While the record itself doesn’t feature the band at the height of their 2003 “Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” powers, it does serve as a strong reminder of exactly how this band has lasted so long, and why they’ll probably survive another 10 years if they really want to.

Buy “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” from Amazon

Album Review: Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will [Sub Pop/Rock Action]

It’s still very early in 2011, but I’ll put down money right now that no band comes up with a better album title this year than “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will”. That’s what Mogwai titled their seventh album, and when you’ve been making people’s ears bleed profusely the last 15 years with your excruciatingly loud rock music, that’s a title you earn. Yes, this band has been making post-rock music since the time that post-rock probably wasn’t even a term. They’re one of the originators of the genre, and it’s appropriate that they burst onto the scene with their best and most exciting record in the form of 1997’s “Young Team”. Mogwai are also the sort of band that profusely divides music lovers, some view their songs as noise for noise’s sake, while others studiously analyze each composition for the peaks and valleys and undulating beauty of it all. The thing about being around for so long and putting out so many albums though is that you can’t keep doing the same things over and over again. Like any good band, changing up your sound and trying new things is imperative to your survival. Mogwai’s first album was so raw and ferociously loud that it metaphorically scorched the Earth. Since then, they’ve gotten quieter and more studious, pushing for greater beauty in their tracks. The last couple records sounded more like a band on their last legs, tired and worn out and punching those chords in without too much emotion. Yet a song like “The Sun Smells Too Loud”, off 2008’s “The Hawk Is Howling” still broke into new territory by putting away a lot of the guitars in favor of keyboards, synths and a drum machine. It was the singularly arresting moment on an otherwise mediocre effort, but it left the door open to some ways they might be able to break their sound through to the next level.

Instead of taking that leap forwards to where they need to go, Mogwai instead chose to look to their past for “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will”. They reconnected with “Young Team” producer Paul Savage, likely in the hopes that he would drag out the spark that he first saw in a very young group of guys from Glasgow. The good news is that Savage seems to have brought the band out of the funk they’d been in the last two records, because in listening to the new album you come away with the impression that they’re re-energized and enjoy making music again. As for the songs themselves, well, a bit of restored energy can only take you so far; creativity and innovation have to take you the rest of the way. Opening track “White Noise” marks perhaps the most lackluster start to a Mogwai album ever, but that doesn’t mean the song is necessarily bad. It’s graceful and lovely and embraces you with some soft piano while resisting some of the post-rock cliches of slowly building to a loud guitar peak. The restraint shown is admirable, even if it doesn’t get you fired up for the other songs to come. And as a continued sign of progression, “Mexican Grand Prix” is all synths, keyboards, bass and drum machines in what amounts to a dark electro-inspired cut. There’s a strong 80s influence that might bring to mind a band like Neu! or Kraftwerk with a more modern M83-like twist. It sounds almost nothing like the Mogwai we’re familiar with and that’s one of the big reasons why it’s one of the record’s strongest efforts. If only they’d do more of it. Fuzzed out electric guitars are the very first things that seduce you into “Rano Pano”, and they pretty much stay that way as other small bits and pieces come together to create a wall of sound that’s pretty much become a band standard by now. There is a moment though, with about 90 seconds left in the track that the volume level escalates from 2 to 10 in an instant that comes across as something invigorating and visceral like many of Mogwai’s earliest material. Unfortunately that’s just a few moments on an otherwise very autopiloted song.

The way that the guitars, synths and piano all interact on “Death Rays” turns it into a shimmering and soaring spectacle better than Mogwai has done in several years. It’s another one of those restrained moments where the band takes a subdued melody and makes it their own in the best sort of way. The buzzsaw electric guitar that cuts through the fray in the last couple minutes is also one of the best riffs they’ve cranked out in a short while. Things get back to “rocking out” mode again with “San Pedro”, yet another bit of normalcy for Mogwai, though with the added benefit of sounding just a touch more raw and energized than much of what was on their last album. Or it could just be that it sounds more white hot than usual because of the quieter, more beautiful moments it’s surrounded by. The grand piano and splashes of keyboard on “Letters to the Metro” give the track a very soulful base along with emotional resonance that is sad but cathartic. Mogwai likes to use distortion on their vocals when they have them on a track, and they break out the Autotune for “George Square Thatcher Death Party”. The guitars may be mixed pretty significantly into the song, but they’re the least important part of it next to that pitch-shifted singing and smartly used synths. The way that “How to Be A Werewolf” calmly moves from subdued synths to a really sharp rock song feels completely earned over its 6 minutes. The band doesn’t blind or deafen you with pure noise but instead relies on strong melody amidst the heavier guitars. The way they squirm and slide rather than simply attack head on shows that Mogwai has learned a thing or two in their somewhat lengthy careers. “Too Raging to Cheers” is one of the more lackluster efforts on the album, notable really only for the small dose of violin that shows up all too briefly for a few moments. But what would a Mogwai album be without an epic closer? “You’re Lionel Richie” is 8.5 minutes of what this band does best, which is lull you into a false sense of relaxed beauty before pulling the rug out from underneath you with a wall of heavy guitars. It’s a dirge that likely hopes you’ll recall similar death marches “Like Herod” or “Mogwai Fear Satan”, the only thing is this one’s not quite up to that level of brilliance. Even if it were, there’s the whole “done it all before” aspect that would lessen its overall impact anyways. Just because the song isn’t among Mogwai’s 5 best doesn’t mean it’s still not good though. There’s plenty to like about it, and in terms of a way to wrap up the record nothing else seems as fitting.

“Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” may not be the greatest Mogwai record, but it is a very exciting one. The band seems more awake and aware of their history and are trying to move in a direction that both honors that and also progresses forwards. The increased use of piano and synths on many tracks breaks out some different sounds and tempos as the band holds back on a number of peaks and valleys they’d normally traverse with the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic of electric guitars. This is engaging material despite the subdued nature of it all, though some will argue that it’s just a bit boring. At the very least it’s better than what they’ve been doing, essentially stuck and running in place on their last couple efforts. There are a couple songs on this album that either don’t quite live up to their potential or slide backwards into the same tropes that have become old hat by now, but for the most part Mogwai is in a better place than they were two or three years ago. Hopefully these new, less heavy compositions don’t do much to change the intensity of their live shows, which is the best thing about the band. Apparently so is producer Paul Savage. We can’t quite roll out the “Welcome Back” banners for these guys just yet, but if they keep steady on the path they’ve started anew here, Mogwai could very well be rising from the ashes within a few years. Maybe there is a chance they’ll make that genre-defining album before they reach an expiration date.

Mogwai – Rano Pano
Mogwai – San Pedro

Buy “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” from Amazon

Album Review: Mogwai – Special Moves [Rock Action]

For Live Friday this week, considering that Mogwai coincidentally also released their first live CD/DVD on Tuesday, this is going to serve as something of a 2 birds, one stone type of situation. If you’ve never heard a Mogwai record before, that’s something you need to experience sooner rather than later. The band’s largely instrumental compositions are post-rock of the most epic sort, often slowly building in ferocity until peaks are reached and there’s a cathartic release of skull-pounding noise. It’s something they’ve been doing for over 13 years and 6+ studio albums, and though the sentiment tends to be that they’ve started to get stale and have been treading water the last couple albums, there are still clear highlights on each to make everything in their catalogue worthwhile. Yes, albums like their debut “Young Team” and “Rock Action” will always hold a revered place amongst Mogwai fans, but scorched Earth later period songs like “Glasgow Mega-Snake” and “Batcat” will be there too, mostly because they’re so damn good.

New York’s Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t exactly the most thrilling venue to create a live CD/DVD, that is compared to other bands who choose to make their live recordings at special anniversary shows or at a highly unique location or something similar. The combination package, the CD portion of which is titled “Special Moves” and the DVD portion titled “Burning” was recorded in total over 3 nights at MHOW, but constitute what might be considered a very accurate portrayal of what you’d see and hear at your average Mogwai show. It’s also a very well balanced collection of songs, selecting songs from each of Mogwai’s albums and not displaying any particular favoritism towards any period of their careers. And while requisite mind-exploders like “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” are staples of virtually any Mogwai show, they also dive a little deeper beyond the flagrantly fantastic for a subdued moment like “Cody” or the not-quite-obvious choice of “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School”. What really stands as a testament to how amazing Mogwai are live is how well they’re able to take these career-spanning songs of various quality and seamlessly blend them together to the point where everything sounds mindblowing. Sure, there are some epic standouts, but despite this not being a greatest hits record it can often feel like one, with just a tiny amount of crowd noise in between to remind you that it’s live.

In terms of the “Burning” live DVD that you can get as part of the live package, it’s a black-and-white affair directed by the great Vincent Moon along with Nathanaël Le Scouarnec. The “Special Moves” CD might be a great audio representation of Mogwai’s music in a live setting, but to capture the full effect you absolutely need to see what’s happening on stage. From the smart lighting work to Martin Bulloch’s shockingly effective drum work, those are just two big positives among a wealth of them proving that this band is best when they’re both seen and heard. There’s not a ton of overlap between the CD and DVD tracklistings, and the DVD-exclusive renditions of “The Precipice” and “Batcat” are pretty jaw-dropping in their own right amongst heavy-hitters like “Hunted By A Freak” and “Like Herod”. And while the DVD may show you what a completely enthralling experience Mogwai’s live show is, unless you’ve got a gigantic TV with an extreme number of speakers you’ll never be able to fully recreate what it’s like to be in the same room as the band mows down a large crowd with an intense amount of noise. Your entire body vibrates, your hair stands on end, and more than likely you’ll have some hearing damage to contend with. For those who aren’t going to be able to catch a Mogwai live performance anytime soon, or simply just want to have a recorded show at their beck and call, “Special Moves” and “Burning” are your two grand companions for that. They also serve as a fantastic introduction to the band if they’re new to you.

While I am unable to offer you some mp3s from “Special Moves” for your downloading pleasure, thankfully I do have a relatively large archive of Mogwai live bootlegs I can choose from. So what you’ll find below is a session the band did on BBC Radio 1 back in 2006 around the release of their album “Mr. Beast”. Naturally then, most of the tracks pull from that album, but it still gives a pretty strong impression of what Mogwai sounds like live, even if it’s not quite the quality “Special Moves” and “Burning” have to offer.

Mogwai – Friend of the Night (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Glasgow Mega-Snake (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Summer (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Acid Food (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Folk Death 95 (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Travel Is Dangerous (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – We’re No Here (Live on BBC1)

Buy “Special Moves” and “Burning” in various packages from Rock Action

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