Typically, I am the type of person who prefers an album of mostly lyrical compositions, with a few savory instrumentals intertwined within. This seems to go against what frontman Stuart Braithwaite (of Mogwai) might believe, as he’s stated inherently recently, “I think most people are not used to having no lyrics to focus on. Lyrics are a real comfort to some people. I guess they like to sing along and when they can’t do that with us they can get a bit upset.” Regardless, this did not stop me whilst reviewing The Hawk Is Howling, the latest and sixth studio effort from the Scotland prog-rockers led by Braithwaite himself.
Songs here play out much like psychedelically-potent mood music meshed with Pumpkins flavored shoegaze and a Floyd-esque sense of epic atmospheres. Outside of describing them the best way I can, one really doesn’t get the full experience without really listening to Young Team or Rock Action from beginning to end. So, how does one poignantly point out the good, the bad, and the ugly on such a profound album? The only way this reviewer can – song by song.
The first song, “I’m Jim Morrison I’m Dead”, is superb down to every note. With melancholy moods within the first few minutes and a grand finish by the guitars, this track sounds like a dead poet’s eulogy… which seems fitting given the track’s title. Shortly following is “Batcat”, which incidentally reminds me of the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway – a trip into psychosis with Reznor-inspired bombast and distortion.
“Daphne & The Brain” is next on the list and quite the fine treasure. Without resorting to allusions of Pinky being replaced, one could say that it’s almost a companion piece to something like The Fragile or Fucked Up’s latest outing, The Chemistry of Common Life.
“Local Authority” sadly starts out slower than the previous song, and that tends to feel a bit like you’re snailing along the outer rim of your CD with an index finger; not really a big upper when placed next door to “Daphne & The Brain.” Luckily, it is saved shortly thereafter by “The Sun Smells Too Loud”, a cheerful arrangement of keyboards and drums akin to The Cure or David Bowie, with slick 80’s guitar that begs for a repeated viewing of 1997’s The Wedding Singer.
“Kings Meadow” presumably has something to do with King’s Meadow in Reading, Berkshire, due to a high possibility of it being medieval-related, with its gentle chimes in the background and near-slow dance quality all around. It’s not the best work on the album, in terms of personal taste, but it suits the band’s overall work. “I Love You, I’m Going To Blow” really plays as the title claims – a slow tempo change over the span of six minutes before exploding in a Radiohead-like distorted conclusion.
“Scotland’s Shame” holds true epic capacity and combines the defining qualities of every previous song mentioned, and clocking in at just over 8 minutes, it’s baffling how one cannot doze off listening to it, simply because it keeps you hooked at each chord. “Thank You Space Expert” is similar to “Us & Them” by Pink Floyd, both in rhythm and in tone – something you could imagine hearing in 2001: A Space Odyssey almost instantly.
Closing up The Hawk Is Howling would be, “The Precipice”. As it stands, the title is perfect to end a grand album, and as we hear the initial guitar strumming, echoing the likes of Tool and ’94-era Reznor, some light piano is thrown in and keeps a nice, march-along rhythm as it persists. It’s very spacey, sprawling, and adventurous, but before it can dwindle too far ahead, the drums unfortunately kick in, building to a cliche, epic crescendo.
While nearly all of the tracks properly segue together, and the moods constantly shift up and down in refreshing waves of mixed emotions – the only downside is that unless you’re an avid fan of Mogwai or any other band with similar instrumental prowess, you’ll likely not listen to the whole recording. The Hawk Is Howling was something I thoroughly enjoyed, despite Braithwaite’s forewarnings. That being said, it’s a definite recommendation to anyone who is curious about Mogwai’s style and a certain favorite amongst fans of anyone mentioned above (primarily Floyd and Mogwai themselves).
Just don’t try to get too lost in it.