Britpop ruled the waves when Mogwai emerged out of Glasgow with a string of early singles in 1996, and the music the young band were making took a decisive stand against the prevailing mood. Indebted to Slint and early shoegaze noiseniks such as My Bloody Valentine, the band developed a trademark post-rock sound that used deceptively simple repeating riffs and melodies to build enormous, tremolo-picked cathedrals of sound, knock them down, and then rebuild them again when you least expected it.
Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite identifies third single Summer as the moment Mogwai realised their path. It is one they have walked with conviction and – as we discover – no little sense of adventure ever since.
20. Teenage Exorcists (Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1., 2014)
Mogwai at their most poppy, complete with vocals with decipherable lyrics, this short follow up to Rave Tapes put the band back on familiar territory. The fuzzy guitars sit below the melody until around the two-and-a-half unite mark when they fill the speakers before dropping down again in volume if not in angst as the chorus returns to take us to the conclusion. Where other bands might have seen fit to drop a solo, Mogwai drop some brick-heavy riffage instead.
19. Summer (Ten Rapid, 1997)
First released as a single in 1996, this song became the opener for the Ten Rapid compilation that was many people’s first introduction to Mogwai. As a statement of intent, it features everything that would go on to make the band great. Reverb-heavy guitars fade and build, hammering away at an E5 chord, alongside bass, drums, organ and glockenspiel. In what would become a feature of some of the bands most enduring music, that unexpected glockenspiel is used to pick out a top melody to help compensate in the ears of expectant listeners for the lack of vocals. The whole thing builds to a tumultuous ending, before everything but the organ stops and that instrument fades out. Notice had been served of a band on the verge of something special.
Stuart Braithwaite said of the song, when talking to The List in 2015: “It was the first song we really did as a band, and the first instrumental we recorded. It was a bit of music I’d written, a bit of music Dominic (Aitchison) had written, and we bashed it all together. The fact it turned out so well is the reason we went down the road we did. Every band starting out tries to go down every road at once, but this was the first time we knew what Mogwai sounded like.”
18. Simon Ferocious (Rave Tapes, 2014)
If Rave Tapes was something of a departure for Mogwai after Hardcore Will Never Die…, with its heavy reliance on modular synthesiser sounds, then a track like Simon Ferocious [what Freddie Mercury called Sid Vicious when the latter interrupted a Queen recording session] ensures that no one could be in any doubt as to the band behind the music.
Off the back of their work soundtracking French horror drama Les Revenants there is a John Carpenter influence to much of the music here (perhaps most evident on the excellent but too synth-heavy for inclusion here Remurdered) and Simon Ferocious embellishes that fuzzy synth sound with full band dynamics, the guitars building throughout to add heft to proceedings. Not a guitar-centric song then, but what that would be hugely diminished without there presence.
17. Friend Of The Night (Mr Beast, 2006)
Another track from Mr Beast, and at five-and-a-half minutes another relatively brief entry into our list – even if for most bands it would be considered quite long. But what Mogwai can do with five-and-a-half minutes, many of their post-rock brethren can’t easily match in double the time. It is Barry Burns piano line that really carries the song along, providing the hook that lures you in, so this is perhaps a surprising choice for us, but that piano part is supported from below by a growing, menacing storm of distorted guitar and drums.
Friend Of The Night is proof that the guitar doesn’t need to be front and centre of the mix to shape the direction and alter the feel of Mogwai’s music… the night of the song title would be a pleasant summer evening if left to the piano alone, accompanied as it is it feels as though we are well into autumn with winter’s icy hand pulling us into the dark.
16. Pripyat (Atomic, 2016)
A brooding, menacing song from Mogwai’s soundtrack to a 2015 BBC documentary titled Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise), this song – like so much of the album – holds back on the fury to take you on a sonic journey through the deserted streets of the lost Ukranian city that once served Chernobyl power station. The guitar lines are relatively clean by Mogwai’s standards, with just enough of a hint of distortion and delay to unsettle, while maintaining the calm even as the music swells. As a soundtrack, Atomic is perhaps more about the whole than its constituent parts, but Pripyat remains a standout track.
15. Kin (Kin, 2018)
Another soundtrack project, Kin saw Mogwai steer away from their noisier side to deal in the brooding atmospherics at which they have become so adept. This title track can’t resist a signature slow build crescendo, however, with Braithwaite even taking a violin bow to his 1970 Les Paul Deluxe to add unusual textures to a relatively clean guitar offering.
14. Batcat (The Hawk Is Howling, 2008)
The second track on The Hawk Is Howling leaps out of the squalling feedback that closes opener I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead with a combination of heavy metal-inspired distorted riffing and squealing guitars. There are a couple of diminuendos, where held, distorted guitar notes bridge the gap left by the other instruments dropping out, but they are very brief and Batcat is essentially full-throttle from start to finish. And what a finish, the song managing to build on its loud/loud dynamic with a louder still finale that drops away into the opening, clean, delayed notes of Danphe And The Brain.
Stuart Braithwaite told The List: “We haven’t done too many really heavy songs over the years, and this is maybe the best one. It has a really demented structure and it’s fun to play, it shouldn’t really work but it does.”
13. Christmas Steps (Come On Die Young, 1999)
This 10-and-a-half-minute number from the follow up to Young Team makes the most of doubling the guitars, initially cleanly as they play a melody based around the C♯ and A major chords unaccompanied. Hi-hat and bass are added almost imperceptibly, until we get somewhere near the three-and-a-half-minute mark and build to a signature crescendo. Distortion comes into play as well and things get pretty heavy until around six minutes when the guitars are cleaned up and a quiet solo violin joins in. From here the guitars offer a delicate counter-melody, accompanied by the violin, and the drums back out. As the listener anticipates the next wave, what we get instead is a slow diminuendo to the songs conclusion at 10.39.
Braithwaite told The List: “It was the first thing we recorded after Young Team, when we were keen to get started on something else. It felt like another big progression.”
12. Old Poisons (Every Country’s Sun, 2017)
Every Country’s Son was Mogwai’s first album without founding guitarist John Cummings and also saw the band reunited with producer David Fridmann, and the latter was able to use the space created by the absence of the former to add a stillness and calm to this less crowded music. That isn’t to say the band had forgotten how to rock noisily, as Old Poisons amply demonstrates, pummeling the listener with all the trademark snarl and ferocious bite with which Mogwai made their name in the second half of the 1990s.
11. Stanley Kubrick (EP+6, 2001)
Originally released in 1999 on an untitled EP (Mogwai were really gunning for the charts back then!), this was an early sign of Mogwai leaving behind the dynamic shock tactics that had driven some of their best early music, instead creating something that grew steadily with the addition of extra layers and textures throughout its four-and-a-half minutes. It’s a dreamy affair, less jazzy but with elements of Lynch and Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks, where the guitars rise and fall with the extensive use of delay, while the bassline does the heavy lifting. Beauty without the beast, although the weird, pitch-shifted effect at the end brings to mind the sort of insect you wouldn’t want to encounter in a jungle or the Australian outback.
10. Hunted By A Freak (Happy Songs For Happy People, 2003)
Happy Songs For Happy People might be a bit of a misnomer for Mogwai’s 2003 album, but it is certainly one of their most accessible and Hunted By A Freak opens the door to any newcomers in pretty conventional fashion. Even Braithwaite has admitted the song essentially has a conventional pop structure. Guitars are central to the song’s appeal, with a clean, sparsely picked intro riff drenched in echo and delay leads into a vocal distorted beyond comprehension with a vocoder (a Mogwai staple) and a high guitar part that tracks the vocals and adds a toppling melody of its own.
9. 7.25 (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, 2006)
Apparently built up from an unused Come On Die Young outtake, this track from Mogwai’s 2006 soundtrack to Scott Douglas Gordon’s movie Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (in which the director followed football genius Zinedine Zidane, and only Zidane, throughout a Real Madrid match) does evoke that album’s cold, haunting flavour. A demonstration of the sort of gentle beauty with which Mogwai can marry some of their most ferocious noise, the gentle guitars here are drenched in delay and played with the sort of finesse for which the film’s central character was so well regarded.
8. Glasgow Mega-Snake (Mr Beast, 2006)
A short, metallic blast, at just three-and-a-half minutes Glasgow Mega-Snake is something of an outlier among the many epic orchestrations included here. But that is its charm, the fact that it flies out of the blocks and never lets up. The secret to so many of Mogwai’s musical successes has been their seemingly effortless mastery in taking you to the edge but delaying gratification before finally catching you unawares. Here they go straight for the vein. The song does break down into a chimey, arpeggiated section around 2.20, but by the three-minute mark it’s tearing your head off again until suddenly deciding enough is enough with an abrupt conclusion.
7. 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong (Rock Action, 2001)
With Rock Action Mogwai worked again with Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann as producer and some of that band’s sonic experimentalism is evident on this track that builds and builds as the ringing, delay-effected guitar arpeggios at its core are layered upon with drums and cymbals, then bass and keyboards, horns and even the voice of Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys.
The guitars remain at the core of the song, however, and even when they get rather lost as it breaks down around the six-minute mark into broken, glitchy electronic noises, the earthy tones of a banjo keep us in the realms of stringed instruments. By the time ethereal voices give this achingly sad piece of music the send off it deserves, those arpeggios are back… before they shockingly give way to the intro of the next track, Secret Pint.
Braithwaite told The List in 2015: “With that song we really tried everything, we managed to squeeze so many ideas and so many people on it; lots of singers, lots of instruments, lots of programming. But it’s a good tune and a good melody, that’s the fundamental of how what we do works.”
6. Ceiling Granny (As The Love Continues, 2021)
Mogwai’s first number one album, 25 years into their career, is a series of highlights, but this out-and-out rocker puts the distorted guitars front and centre for four minutes of head-banging pleasure. Twin distorted guitars open proceedings with heavy distortion and what follows ditches the ‘post’ and just rocks in the vein of Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins, a phaser-effected guitar part slicing through in places to throw the listener off. Apparently the band had originally envisaged this song being played at a considerably slower tempo before Fridmann encouraged them to go with this faster version. We’d love to here the stoner version of this, but we’re loving the version we got too.
5. Helicon 1 (Ten Rapid, 1997)
Originally released as a 7-inch single with the more straightforward New Paths To Helicon Pt 2 on the other side, New Paths To Helicon Pt 1 (hereby referred to as Helicon 1) set a benchmark for Mogwai’s early sound with its gently picked opening bars swelling throughout into a noise that threatens to overwhelm but never quite does, retaining a sense of hope and beauty through the feedback, before dissolving back into the most gentle of conclusions. The band would use the template of the quiet/loud dynamics of Helicon 1 throughout their early career (they’re still capable of delivering on the formula now), but it’s the way the guitars take you to the edge of something and bring you back before it’s too late that gives the music here its force.
Mogwai rarely bludgeon you with their noise (unless you go to see them live!), and even when it really kicks off just before the three-minute mark, there is a delayed refrain in the background familiar from the song’s opening that will lead you through the maelstrom to its safe conclusion. With Mogwai, you are never lost. The song was a favourite of the late John Peel, who championed the band, making his 1997 Festive 50, is most famous for its inclusion on the early Ten Rapid compilation and has been a staple of the band’s setlist ever since.
4. Like Herod (Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003, 2005)
Already a behemoth of a track in its original guise on Mogwai Young Team, the live version included here from one of the band’s BBC sessions is almost doubled in length to over 18 minutes and fills every second with interesting and innovative guitar music. The mellow moments are very mellow, but are far outweighed here by the song’s beefy central riff and walls of energetic, thrashing noise in the key of Em that eventually dissolves into dissonant feedback as the band plays goodness knows what and the listener is left crushed and under no illusion as to what to expect from the Mogwai live experience. The band explore myriad sonic textures on record, live they will crush your brain and leave your ears ringing for days.
3. Letters To The Metro (Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, 2011)
It’s hard to believe that Hardcore Will Never Die… is now 10 years old, as there are plenty of Mogwai’s signature moves contained within, You’re Lionel Ritchie unable to hold itself back and delivering a rewarding crescendo, while the distorted riffing of Rano Pano holds up well against earlier and later efforts.
But it is in the departures it takes from the Mogwai formula that Hardcore is most affecting. The Krautrock inspirations behind Mexican Grand Prix are evident in its motor beat, something that surfaces elsewhere, but the truly standout moment on the album proper is the cold, heartbreaking Letters To The Metro, on which a perfectly judged slide guitar motif in the chorus embellishes and already pretty piano melody supported by delicate string arrangement. A rare moment of Mogwai illustrating that they know full well less can be more when it comes to the guitar. The bonus disc to the original release of Hardcore, featuring the epic, 23-minute composition Music For A Forgotten Future also illustrates just what this band can do when they dial back the noise.
2. My Father My King (My Father My King single, 2001)
If Mogwai have proven themselves to be masters of doing an awful lot with not very many notes then My Father My King might stand as their pinnacle achievement in this regard. Essentially a repeating pattern with a vaguely eastern flavour using open D tuning to create a drone effect, this 20-minute Steve Albini-produced standalone single hits like a nuclear bomb when that oh so pretty melody (which was apparently loosely based on a Jewish prayer) explodes into a squall of rasping distortion and untameable noise. Described by the band as “two parts serenity and one part death metal”, it is hard to find any cause to disagree with their assessment as the final three-and-a-half minutes is swallowed in feedback.
A real beauty and the beast of a song, it’s another staple of the Mogwai setlist and often used as a closer to send bewildered audiences out into the night wondering what the hell just happened to them.
1. Mogwai Fear Satan (Mogwai Young Team, 1997)
Having said that Mogwai don’t often bludgeon you with their noise, they retain the right to do so, and with the 15-minute monster that is Mogwai Fear Satan they have been scaring the life out of audiences since the release of the Mogwai Young Team album (which it originally closed out) in 1997.
Based around two repeating guitar parts, one using chords and the other a tremoloed single-note pattern, the song uses dynamics to devastating effect, creating something so far beyond the sum of its modest parts that it defies belief. If quite/loud was and is a Mogwai staple, Mogwai Fear Satan’s quiet/loud/quiet/much louder formula still has the propensity to shock, particularly in a live setting where the band can play with the audience’s expectations regarding when the mellow, looped pattern that has lulled you into a false sense of security is going to explode.
The band’s Stuart Braithwaite told The List back in 2015: “It’s pretty much the only song that people moan about if we don’t play it live, which is a huge compliment after 18 years. It never gets boring to play, but it’s frustrating if we’re playing it somewhere and it’s not loud enough or people aren’t paying attention. I sometimes catch sight of someone reading their texts just before the really loud bit and think, ‘You’ll regret that in a minute, mate.’”