The 2017 January night before Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the USA, art-rock alchemists Mogwai played Berkeley in California. Inside the packed UC Theatre they stoically steered through Atomic, their 2016 soundtrack for Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, northern Irish film director Mark Cousins’ devastating dissection of nuclear history as the film itself rolled out behind the band. Mogwai’s eerie symphonic intensity dramatically magnified the catastrophic imagery of actual armageddon. For some, it was a sensory overload too far.
“Sixteen people passed out,” notes Stuart Braithwaite, merrily, Mogwai’s guitarist, worldly sage, Twitter wit and (very) occasional singer. “I don’t know if the Americans had done their research. ‘What the…!?’ Stretchered out. It was warm, a lot of them were stoned and they were seeing a nuclear apocalypse in from of them when they were about to elect as President a man-baby with no soul, who’s in the pocket of the Russians, about to start world war three. It was too much, the perfect storm!”
For twenty-two years Mogwai have been making the rest of us metaphorically pass out: in rapturous awe, in brutalised dread and transcendental promise. Since 1995 Glasgow’s post-rock pioneers have been a sonic perfect storm, the musical equivalent of both Francis Bacon’s horror paintings and William Blake’s visions of angels in the trees (or, if you like, the aural equivalent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, except by exuberant Scottish jesters in sturdy rainwear, here in the 21st Century).
The more precarious the world becomes, the more their music is escapist balm, more so than ever inside the cocooning deliverance of their ninth studio album, Every Country’s Sun. “If we can distract anyone from the shambles and stupidity for even a couple of minutes,” decides Barry Burns, Mogwai’s ever-wry multiinstrumentalist, “then that’s better than anything, excepting valium.”
Every Country’s Sun takes two decades of Mogwai’s signature, contrasting sounds – towering intensity, pastoral introspection, synth-rock minimalism, DNA-detonating volume – and distills it, beautifully, into 56 concise minutes of gracious elegance, hymnal trance-rock and transcendental euphoria. Produced by psycherock luminary Dave Fridmann it’s a structural soundscape built from its stark foundations up, from a gentle, twinkling, synth-rock spectre to a solid, distortion-rock, skyward-thrusting obelisk. There’s percussive, dreamstate electronics (Coolverine), church organs as chariots of existential fire (Brain Sweeties), tremulous, foreboding bleeping, possibly from a dying android (aka 47) while the last three songs explode from the sonic womb into raging, elemental life. Their most transportive album yet, it also hosts their most fully realised artpop sing-along of all time, Party In The Dark, a head-spinning disco-dream double-helix echoing New Order and The Flaming Lips, featuring Braithwaite’s seldom-heard melodic vocals declaring he’s “directionless and innocent, searching for another piece of mind”. Burns still can’t believe his ears. “That one turned out as close to a radio hit as we’re likely to get,” he smiles. “I find myself humming it which is not normal.” This is music as a keep-out chrysalis, protective audio armour through exalting organs and portentous, dissonant guitar fuzz warping at the edges, bending the world inside out into a reality you’d much rather live in. The last three songs ascend into explosive exorcism, closing with the colossal Every Country’s Sun, its searching intensity wooshing towards infinity in a dazzling cosmic crescendo.
“The last song is my favourite,” says Braithwaite. “The whole record builds and builds, a lot of it’s synth heavy, then guitar heavy and that last song encompasses everything. This album definitely has a trajectory to it, building towards something scary and overwhelming.”
It began in the tumultuous year of 2016, the band submerged in individual demos, working for the first time without John Cummings (who left in late 2015); Braithwaite, Burns, Dominic Aitchison (bass) and Martin Bulloch (drums) all pooling ideas via Dropbox. Braithwaite worked at home in Glasgow, “in my temple to hoarding, very much a Man Cave, piles of records and skateboards and Celtic scarves”, Burns in Berlin, in a tiny art studio where he and his wife once lived. “I messed around with loads of synths,” says Burns. “I play very little guitar on this record, so there’s tonnes of old organs and old synths from Dave Fridmann’s studio too. The Berlin studio is essential for productivity. I tried home working and it was totally unproductive, internet seduction and all that mind-fizz.”
Buoyed with new ideas they reconvened physically at their Glaswegian studio, the wryly-titled Castle of Doom.