Yes, time catches up to all of us, but you have to think that it's harder on rock stars. Plenty die young, having spent their bodies, and created their art, but many live on, continuing to release music every-so-often with ever-diminishing results. I'm sure their are some counter-examples to this trend, and I'm not saying that the offerings of aged artists are unlistenable, but come on... Would you really rather hear the newest Dylan than Blood on the Tracks? When's the last time that you got excited about a new Rolling Stones album, and did you know that they've released three since 1994? Because I sure didn't (Thank You Wikipedia!). Now, clearly, Mogwai is not such a notable act as the two aforementioned performers, but their status as the forefather of a now popular genre (Post-Rock) should not be denied. The group formed in 1995, and has been making music both dazzling and snarling at alternate turns ever since, seven LPs and just as many EPs documenting their career.
Sixteen years in a lot to spend in any one profession, let alone one that makes its name on amps and distortion, and one that you helped create, but have been long since surpassed as most popular. It's enough to take the starch out of you, and for the first two tracks of Hardcore, that's exactly what happens. It's not that White Noise and Mexican Grand Prix aren't good tunes: The former is languid, spacious, and glimmering, while the latter shows the band's love using vocals as simply another instrument in an intricate song structure. The problem is the lack of danger in either song. Mogwai's best tracks have always convinced the listener of a possible explosion at any time, making their music exciting and urgent even during down-tempo movements. Here, tracks one and two allude to such power, but their final decision to stay in a lower gear sees them slipping into that nowhere-land of post-rock known as, 'Background Music'.
It comes as a pretty healthy surprise, then, when the third number, Rano Pano, declares itself as having nothing to do with what came before it. Opening with a beyond-distorted guitar riff before paring it with yet another, RP evolves into something enormous without ever becoming over-complicated. It's a song that shows the band's incredible knack for finding beauty in grittiness, its slyly slow, exacting pace bolstered into head-banging territory by drum rolls, and zany guitar effects. Death Rays, on the other hand, starts with a whisper as opposed to a bang, and though it never raises its voice much louder than White Noise, the swirling keyboard and guitar mixture of the verses make way for the pounding, anthemic chorus in just the right way.
By the time you're four songs in, you've already covered most of the sonic territory that Hardcore really has to offer, but there are still a couple of tricks left up its sleeve. Letters to the Metro doesn't have a drop of venom to its name, and it's all the better for it. Running for just under five minutes, the song consists of only a few, simple elements: drums played with brushes, and a guitar that slides wearily in the background, both wrapped up in a few lonely, restrained piano chords. It's a perfect contrast from San Pedro, the only song on the album that starts off sprinting, and doesn't stop until its time is done. But then there's a bit more of the same, as George Square Thatcher Death Party attempts the same studied use of vocals as Mexican Grand Prix, and winds up with a similarly underwhelming result. The last two songs on Hardcore, Too Raging to Cheers and You're Lionel Richie, are throw-back Mogwai, using up their first and second acts to endlessly build to a culminating explosion. It's good stuff, Raging especially, but a tad familiar.
It's heartening to know that, fourteen years since their debut album, Mogwai can still kick some ass with the best of them. What's defeating, however, is to think about the paradox that they're in: if they try to stake out new territory, people like me will accuse them of going soft in their old age, but if they stand their ground, people like me will call everything they do a retread. Hardcore clearly goes both directions in opposing turns, benefitting and suffering from both. Mortality of sorts is clearly on these guys' minds, as the album title would suggest, and the attempt to please all audiences here shows that they're not going down without a fight. It's a bummer to know that if I would have heard Hardcore before, say, Mogwai Young Team, or Happy Songs for Happy People, my preferences might be different than they are now, but I guess that's the curse of making a name for yourself, and still desiring to continue.