Album Review: Mogwai – Central Belters

Posted by Mark Shields


As I sat down for dinner with my wife this week I mentioned that I’d been given the new Mogwai album to review.  We talked a bit about the time we saw them play whilst we lived in Texas and how the Errors’ drummer, James Hamilton, played with Mogwai that time.  She asked what the album was like and I said it was actually a Best Of – and she asked me how I was going to review it.  After a few seconds, I conceded that I actually didn’t know how I was going to review it.  The new album – expertly titled Central Belters as with most Mogwai albums and tracks – is a career spanning retrospective on three discs or six LPs, and is the culmination of a yearlong 20th birthday celebration the band have undertaken, which started last year with the special edition release of Come On Die Young, the band’s second album, and featured a raft of gigs across the world with various friends and bands.

You couldn’t say that this victory lap isn’t deserved either – the group have managed over their twenty years to stay relevant in a genre that has waxed and waned with various other groups appearing and disappearing.  The post-rock peak feels like it was around ten years ago, with the dissolution of Godspeed giving way to a catalogue of other bands, like Explosions in the Sky, whose TV and film soundtracking material was competent for the most part and in rare places excellent.  Mogwai’s career during this time, with the release of Mr. Beast, put them right at the top of the BBC music advisor’s playlist ever since.

But they’ve plugged on through the rise, peak and fall of “their” genre.  I reviewed their most recent EP for this very website and stated that Rave Tapes, their most recent album, was a success on almost every level – and a commercial one too as the PR release reminds us, being the group’s first top ten album.  It’s this consistency that makes Mogwai so powerful and so revered in the first instance, having released eight albums, many more EPs, and a raft of other releases, and still being able to at least make something that has a message and is interesting.

The question therefore remains – as a reviewer, how do I approach this album?  Do I look at the tracks selected as an introduction to the band, lament the tracks left off and critique the decisions made, or take it as a release on its own?  This choice is made a lot harder by the fact that I probably don’t need to listen to 90% of the album seeing as I know the material inside-out, but that’d miss the point of the album.  So I’ve decided to do all of the above – don’t ever accuse me of not sitting on the fence.

Central Belters takes the chronological approach to the Best Of formula with a few tracks misplaced for flow reasons, I assume – imagine putting Mogwai Fear Satan in its chronological place, in the middle of the first disc, rather than at its logical place at the end.  This is admirable actually, and makes the Best Of feel like a journey though the band’s eras.  It’s the selection and weighting of the tracks on here that is worth talking about as it might say something about the band’s regard for their own catalogue.

The first two discs are the Best Of really, with the third disc being a selection of rare tracks from here and there that I’ll get to shortly.  This makes sense – a few years ago I had a go at a Mogwai Best Of (for the record, I called mine Scotland’s Shame) and it too ended up on three “discs”.  What is questionable however is the fact that, of the albums represented here in the 24 tracks selected, 14 of them come from the band’s most recent years; four tracks from Mr Beast and three each from The Hawk is Howling and Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will.  Even the 2015 EP Music Industry 3, Fitness Industry 1 is represented here by Teenage Exorcists, whilst the band’s early period career is only approximated in the first disc’s ten tracks, with only Mogwai Fear Satan from Mogwai Young Team being selected.

I don’t want to seem like I am complaining about the band’s most recent work though, and the choices from those albums are ones I made on my own selection for the most part.  Remurdered, for example, is an all-time classic Mogwai track.  Auto Rock too, one of the Mr Beast compositions that made the cut, will tinkle the memory of any new listener as they struggle for the strand of memory where they’d heard it before.  And, yes, even The Sun Smells Too Loud deserves to be here, a track I initially cast off as a novelty throw-away track takes a life of its own live.

As a long term Mogwai fan the choices made can be confounding to say the least, at first.  Opening with Summer, one of the earliest releases, and choosing the same number of tracks from MYT, Come On Die Young and Rock Action as tracks from just 2014 alone is odd to these ears.  Maybe the band prefer their later-career stuff?  I could easily start pointing out the tracks missed out from the first ten years of the band (and could fill probably another two discs worth) but as a rule you have to review what you’ve been given, and what there is on the album is stellar – some of the strongest work from one of the best post-rock bands ever, and certainly one the best Scottish bands of all-time.

Another way to look at this album is that, as an old fan, I’ve got all of those tracks already and I’ve already got my own Best Of playlists set up – how can I quibble about what the band want to select as their Best Of?  It is still true that the first disc is absolutely essential listening anyway and the second too is wonderful.  The album does a good job of showing off what is so great about Mogwai’s early work: their tenderness and quiet-loud dynamic that is deployed perfectly, and when they go loud, as everyone who has seen them live knows, they go loud.  If you’re new to Mogwai, it is one of the best introductions there can be, save for just going out and buying their first three albums.  The second disc does a good job of arguing that the band never lost what they had, and that showcases the consistency that can be misconstrued as boring that I’ve already applauded.

It’s in the third disc of rare tracks that most fans of the band will find their value.  The definition of rare is loose here though, as the SAY Award nominated Les Revenants, and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait are represented here, along with a few moderately rare EP tracks like Devil Rides (from the Batcat EP) and D to E (from the US Tour EP), but even for Mogwai devotees such as me, Earth Division and Hasenheide are new to me – Hasenheide being an instant new favourite upon first listen – the final disc is so strong it could have been a standalone release in the vein of the classic Ten Rapid collection and a worthwhile addition to any Mogwai fan’s collection.

Special Moves, the band’s live album, is the closest other release you’ll find to a Best Of in the band’s output, and it has some tracks that are missing from here that are conspicuous in their absence, Like Herod being the stand out MIA composition.  But as an approximation of the band’s 20 year career, it does as well as any selection could probably ever do under the circumstances; as fan service, the final disc is a must-own collection; and as an introduction to the cult of Mogwai for newcomers, there is enough to get you interested in their work and enough left to discover on your own time – you’ll fall in love with them in the way the rest of us have.  It is hard to not recommend this release, even though it might have been worth it just for that title alone, really.

MogwaiCentral Belters is released on Friday 23rd October via Rock Action Records and will be available on digital download and in limited edition 3xCD and 6xLP box sets here.  Read our exclusive interview with guitarist Stuart Braithwaite here.

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