By Cathal McBride
August 30, 2013
Mogwai‘s music lends itself so well to soundtrack use that it’s surprising they haven’t done more in that line of work by this point in their career. But finally, seven years on from both Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and The Fountain (the latter a collaboration with Clint Monsell and Kronos Quartet) comes Les Revenants, the soundtrack to the French zombie series better known to UK viewers as Channel 4′s ‘The Returned’. Anyone who has seen the series will know how well the music works in it, adding a dark tension to some already very dark, tense scenes. But the most exciting thing here is how well this soundtrack works as an album.
The band say they consciously avoided writing ‘rock music’ for Les Revenants, despite knowing that the series would contain some action sequences. As such it differs from most Mogwai releases in that the whole thing goes by at a similar pace, without a great deal of variation. While this may sound like a bad thing – and it certainly seems like a risk Mogwai are a bit too afraid to take on most of their studio albums – it works incredibly well due to the strength of the material on offer here. Of course it isn’t all quiet and meandering. Opener ‘Hungry Face’ is all pummelling drums in the style of ‘Auto Rock’, and closer ‘Wizard Motor’s fuzz bass line manages to be dramatic and catchy at the same time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the work in their back catalogue this album most resembles is probably the Zidane soundtrack, though it also shares a lot in common with 1999′s Come On Die Young, proving as that album did that often the build ups are all the more rewarding when the promised climax never really arrives.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘This Messiah Needs Watching’ is classic Mogwai, with the same tense organ motif being repeated continuously throughout the song over a truly menacing distorted bassline. Not only is it the clear highlight of this album but would probably be a highlight on most of their other albums too. Towards the end, their cover of Washington Phillips‘ ‘What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?’ provides a respite from the more dramatic tracks, the sound of life returning to normality. It finds the band in folk song mode, complete with the only vocals on the album courtesy Stuart Braithwaite, as he ponders what his friends are up to now they’re dead – a fitting subject for the series. It’s wonderful to hear them try a new direction, particularly one we’ve known they’d be capable of ever since ‘Cody’ but have only since touched upon on 2006′s ‘Acid Food’. If they ever feel like taking a complete left turn, a whole album of material like this would certainly be welcome.
All in all, it’s refreshing to hear the band not feel like they have a formula that they need to stick to – a feeling that was worryingly beginning to take over their albums a few years ago. As captivating as it is to hear Mogwai in full attack mode, if the quieter material is strong enough then it really isn’t a necessary requirement, as this album shows. The break from formula is also evidenced by the track lengths – both of the opening two tracks are under three minutes long, and it’s their only album aside from 2006′s Mr Beast where no tracks reach the six minute mark, so they never outstay their welcome. Nevertheless, even in soundtrack mode, the wonderfully titled ‘Kill Jester’ continues Mogwai’s penchant for giving serious tracks non-serious titles, referencing excellent Scottish sketch comedy ‘Limmy’s Show’ rather than the French zombie drama that it probably should be.
Breaking out of the usual cycle of studio albums to write a soundtrack would probably be a risk for some bands, but Mogwai again prove that when done well, it can leave a band sounding reinvigorated. This isn’t an album that will likely yield any live favourites like ‘Hunted By A Freak’ or ‘Like Herod’, but when taken as a whole it’s certainly worthy of any album Mogwai have produced to date.
Les Revenants is available to buy here.