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A few years back, I saw Mogwai at the Crystal Ballroom. They were touring in support of their third record, Rock Action, which was getting an insane amount of buzz. Though I didn’t own that record yet and had never really heard the band, I thought the show would be a good introduction to the Scottish post-rock band. Unfortunately, I just ended up bored silly. Every one of the band’s songs seemed to start quiet, with a three or four note guitar line, and then explode into huge crescendos of loud guitar, finally ending up back at the same quiet guitar line.

Two records later, I’m willing to bet I would love Mogwai’s live show. But I still think there was some truth to my initial response. With a few exceptions, Mogwai songs tend to follow the same quiet-loud-quiet dynamics. And there is nothing really wrong with that, except that it’s a formula that’s been used over five records. On Mr. Beast, the band’s new full length, the best songs are those that step outside of the group’s safety zone and explore other musical dynamics.

Opener “Auto-Rock” is a doozy. Starting out with a melancholy piano part, the song builds and builds, layering fuzzy guitars and synthesizers over piano to create a sweeping, cinematic ballad. By the time a big bass drum starts pounding behind the music, the song starts to feel epic. “Auto-Rock” sounds like it should be the score to the climax of some paranoid and confusing Hollywood thriller. Though by no means innovative, “Auto Rock” is the Mogwai formula done to perfection.

Next up is “Glasgow Mega-Snake,” which is full of sharp, big-sounding guitars that tiptoe that thin line that separates instrumental rock from heavy metal. For anyone familiar with the band At The Drive In, imagine that band’s angular thrash-rock minus the screaming vocals. “Glasgow Mega Snake,” along with “Folk Death 95” and “We’re No Here,” point to a strange influence: Norwegian black metal.

Black metal, unlike other metal genres, has never been afraid to throw a little cello or church organ into the mix, and I’m sure that’s what attracted Mogwai to it. By subtracting the loud, screechy vocals from black metal, Mogwai have done hesitant black metal fans quite the service.

“Acid Food,” though, is by far the album’s best song. Sounding as country as Mogwai is capable of, the song has a horse-clomping drum machine beat, bells and a sweet steel guitar line. With its whispered vocals, the sung sounds like the soft-spoken tales of a Scottish cowboy as he wanders the Arizona desert. “Acid Food” makes me believe Mogwai could be an amazing indie-pop band, if they ever chose that route. “I Chose Horses” is also a slight departure for the band, with its ambient backing and spoken word vocals in Japanese. The song would go perfect on the “Lost in Translation” soundtrack, right next to Squarepusher’s “Tommib.”

The rest of the songs on Mr. Beast fall into the same pattern I mentioned before, though I hesitate to condemn them all for sounding like the same old Mogwai. Songs like “Team-Handed” and “Friend of the Night” are gorgeous; full of wonderful instrumental touches that come two or three minutes in. At the same time, most Mogwai fans have heard these types of songs a dozen times before and they just don’t seem as extraordinary as they used to. As an introduction to the band, Mr. Beast is as good a place to start as any, but for the seasoned fan, the album just might be a redundant purchase.

-Daniel Krow

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Spitfire’s newest record really divides me; at some points Spitfire creates a really raging and angry hardcore/metal hybrid of the kind that is so popular these days. At other times on Self-Help, especially during the ubiquitous “weird” breakdowns, Spitfire comes across as a weak caricature of much better bands. Spitfire draw obvious influence from Seattle scene luminaries Botch, making songs that generally fall into the genre termed “math-core.” Spitfire’s songs feature heavy guitars, start/stop rhythms and screamed vocals. The lyrics are obtuse yet appropriately bitter, dealing in abstract ways with alienation, anger, relationships, religion and other subjects. There seems to be an undercurrent of anger dealing with spirituality throughout Self-Help, though it isn’t exactly clear which side of the fence Spitfire sit on, maybe they don’t even know. A good example of this odd dichotomy is a line from “Kings of the Food Chain,” “our second coming never came,” this seems pretty obviously bitter towards religion and Christianity specifically. Yet, in “Meat Market” the singer sarcastically sings “admire our intellect and absence of all things spiritual”, seemingly bitter at this point towards a society without religion, perhaps Self-Help is just a series of songs about a growing dissatisfaction with religion in our society. Anyway, besides the lyrical content; the music on Self-Help is pretty damn good. The guitarists have some genuinely creative moments and the rhythm section is solid. The songs however still fit that archetype laid down by bands in the late ’90s like Botch and Coalesce and as such will never make as great an impact. Another important factor in this type of music is the vocal delivery, it has to be appropriately angry and at times Spitfire loses that a little. Overall, Self-Help is a fairly solid release, but fails to break any new ground.

-Ed Johnson