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Even when tending to the minimalistic, the music of Scottish post-rock instrumentalists Mogwai has always been about grandeuratmospheric swells of guitars and keyboards stacked relentlessly atop each other in suffocating layers, jarring transitions from near-silent white noise to frightening explosions of high-decibel distortion. In the fourteen years since the release of its debut Young Team (Chemikal Underground, 1997), Mogwai has carved out a comfortable niche for itself between these two extremes, perfecting a variation on alternative rock's loud-soft dynamic that manages, at its best, to render both the grit and delicacy of indie rock's instrumental foundation almost classical in scope. Still, the occasional stray influence aside (see The Hawk is Howling (Matado[, 2008] for some endearing flirtations with electronica), Mogwai rarely diverts from its fundamental aestheticmoody instrumentals done bigand the organically grown consistency is at once its sharpest asset and greatest frustration.
What's improvedand what's so often overlookedare the compositions. Mogwai's early albums, while often more blunt about its intentions dynamically, were rarely improved by the tentative, almost obscure compositional approach that pervadedif not definingthe group. But recent recordings like The Hawk is Howling and Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Sub Pop, 2011)despite critical objections to the high-dollar clarity with which they seem to have been recordedhave increasingly born witness to sneaky melodic passages that enhance the net worth of the music in a manner entirely different from Mogwai's signature ambiance and bombast. These are cuts like Hawk's "Thank You Space Expert" and Hardcore's "Rano Pano"pieces in which a plainly hummable melody's battle against merciless texture unfolds in a manner that feels almost heavy, in the literal sense.
Released as a companion piece to Hardcore, the brief, toned-down Earth Division EP functions as perhaps Mogwai's most efficient compositional showcase to date. Clocking in at just under seventeen minutes, the principal artistic space occupied by its four tracks is a kind of tuneful minimalismthe kind of thing one might expect to hear as the score for a Stanley Kubrick flick starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as an alienated married couple given to disturbing sexual deviance. The centerpiece, "Drunk and Crazy," begins with tempestuous bursts of static, sustained for several minutes before dissolving, in its second movement, into the sort of minor-key chamber music that characterizes much of the rest of the EPdeceptively simple, yet thoughtfully arranged to the note, and empowered by the cinematic qualities inherently present in Mogwai's music.
Like "Drunk and Crazy," the opening "Get to France" and closing "Does This Always Happen?" are equal parts beautiful and spooky, downcast conversation pieces for piano that play almost like desolately cynical holiday classics. In both tracks, a tinnier second piano answers a more full-bodied first in a manner that almost feels mocking, but they're arranged so artfullyand produced so spaciouslythat the instruments feel appropriately complementary rather than irksomely at odds. Consequently, this innocuous little add-on ends up reaping great pleasures; a program of music by a mood band where the tunes are the most important thing.
Track Listing: Get to France; Hound of Winter; Drunk and Crazy; Does This Always Happen?
Personnel: Stuart Braithwaite: guitar, vocals; John Cummings: guitar, vocals; Barry Burns: guitar, piano, synthesizer, vocals; Dominic Aitchison: bass; Martin Bulloch: drums.