What’s the best you can hope for in a new album from a band that’s been continually writing and recording for more than two decades? There’s a certain answer to that question in Mogwai’s latest, Every Country’s Sun. Since 1996 the Scottish quintet-now-quartet have intrepidly mapped out the musical territory they inhabit, its borders straddling the varied terrains occupied by post-rock and slow-core. Over 30 official releases mark points along the map of their dominion. This is their 16th full-length album, the first without guitarist and original member John Cummings, and the third with producer Dave Fridmann, who last worked with the band on their 2001 release, Rock Action. It’s a competent, gratifying collection, one likely to please fans grateful that their preferred brand of controlled musical demolition has not yet been discontinued. But those seeking something other than familiar landscape may be disappointed to find no new ground broken.
After a few months of trading ideas online, Mogwai convened at Fridmann’s studio in New York State just before the fateful American presidential election and continued recording throughout the unsettling months in between election and inauguration. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite calls the album a “shield” from “very turbulent, intense” times. And if there’s something to distinguish Every Country’s Sun from the previous efforts of a band that was being facetious in calling their 2003 album Happy Songs for Happy People, it’s that this is a hopeful, even ecstatic record.
Much like other primarily instrumental rock bands that wield the contrast between soft and loud like a dramatic bludgeon, Mogwai’s music is almost always epic. That sense of scope can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting, especially if it’s only ever joyless and severe. Every Country’s Sun may not be the feel-good album of 2017, but there’s so much light mixed in with the dark that it’s an affirming even uplifting listen.
The seven minutes of “Crossing the Road Material,” for example, build slowly but reliably from a confident near-strut, with the easygoing vibe of a jam, to a laidback sprint that bursts around its anthemic edges with euphoria. Even the outro – about a minute and a half of drowsy, sun-dappled noodling and strumming – is warm and reassuring. There’s also “Party in the Dark,” the album’s single if there were one. It chugs along, harmonically bitter-but-mostly-sweet, while Braithwaite, his voice haloed in reverse echo, opines about “see[ing] everything,” from “suffering” to “space-age miracles,” feeling “directionless and innocent” but “hungry for another piece of mind.” Synthetic strings swell hopefully alongside insistent bass and crashing cymbals. Another anthem, faces turned towards the sky.
“1000 Foot Face” is the only other song on the album with lyrics, in this case hushed long tones that, along with the soft and dreamy but slowly expanding songscape, echo the ’90s psychedelia of Spiritualized and the quieter moments of Lazer Guided Melodies or Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. “1000 Foot Face” is one of four tracks in a pocket of low-key bliss that fills out the middle of the album, starting with “aka 47” and continuing through “Don’t Believe the Fife,” itself a cavernous, echoey, soundscape that could probably stretch its first four minutes to 14 (and do away with the bashing, grinding, obligatory climax) without upsetting anyone.
Standing in contrast are tracks like “Battered at a Scramble” – with its tangled mass of fuzztones, walloping bass drum and searing hot (but not aggressive) lead guitar – and the one that follows it, “Old Poisons,” which rumbles loudly with more thunder and more lightning. “Poisons” may be the only moment of actual, menacing darkness on the album. The next and final, eponymous, track is far more characteristic of Every Country’s Sun, an album on which rays of hopeful light peek out improbably from behind dark corners. It hums along contentedly, warm determination slowly spreading, growing into another massive, crashing anthem dedicated to the brighter parts on the landscape of these foreboding times.