Mogwai are one of several bands that emerged in the mid ’90s playing music that was eventually labelled Post-Rock. Whilst the music the various Post-Rockers created didn’t sound that similar, it did all share a common musical ‘philosophy’. Of sorts.
Mogwai and their associates set out to create their own distinct music by, very stubbornly, insisting on sticking with traditional Rock instruments – guitar, bass, drums - but, very deliberately, only using them in very non-traditional ways. Using traditional Rock instruments to create rhythms and textures that sounded anything but traditionally Rock.
So a typical Mogwai song might have no vocals. A typical Mogwai song might have the melody played on the bass and the rhythm - if there was one – played on what would in a traditional Rock song be the more melodic instruments. A typical Mogwai song might have no chord changes at all - with the variation in the song provided simply by abrupt or even incredibly slow changes in volume.
The only rules seemed to be: 1. use traditional instruments (as opposed to, for example, banks of synths), 2. in any particular situation, think what Rock would do and do the opposite and 3. unless you feel absolutely compelled to, avoid lyrics and singing at all costs.
Which begs the question…why? Why restrict yourself to working within such an apparently narrow set of rules?
Well, ironically, the answer seems to have been…in order to be more creative and more original.
I don’t know whether Mogwai ever came across the quotation: “To jump really high you need a springboard that is screwed rigidly to the ground.” But if they did not then they instinctively seemed to have understood its meaning anyway.
Because, paradoxically, by defining tight, unbreakable ground rules that restricted the footprint of the space in which they chose to experiment, they channelled their creativity. Channelled it upwards. And in doing so they were able to jump higher, much higher, than most bands that have never even considered restricting their options ever do manage.
‘New Paths To Helicon Part 1′ is one of their early masterpieces, being released in 1997. In typical Mogwai fashion the melody is played on the bass, the guitars are there to provide rhythm, the song’s main ‘themes’ or variations are primarily created by extreme volume changes rather sequences of varying notes or chords and there are no lyrics or singing of any kind.
Yet somehow the whole thing still sounds as fresh and as original today as it did on its release in 1997. And, without the aid of 99% of the techniques and devices that traditional Rock songs use to convey meaning and emotion, ‘New Paths’ manages to evoke as much meaning, as much emotion, as much beauty and as much passion as practically any song that utilises lyrics, verses, choruses and tunes.
Which all goes to prove, maybe, that creativity is not always best generated by sitting down with a blank canvas and trying just to be ‘creative’ and that the power of the ‘creative brief’ in inspiring remarkable music might be underestimated.
On the other hand, if all that philosophising is a bit much for what, at the end of the day, are simply beautifully emotive pieces of music, then there is, of course, a different, less philosophical way of explaining the whole 16-year, 8-studio-album, almost completely lyric-free, Mogwai phenomenon.
Which goes something like…maybe someone with the lads’ best interests at heart, in the early days, took one look at the lyrics that led to such a snappy title as ‘New Paths To Helicon Part 1′ and politely suggested that they might have more successful careers ahead of them if concentrated more on the music and gave the lyrics a miss.
Originally available as a limited edition vinyl 7″ with ‘Helicon 2 on the B-Side. Now avaialble on the compilation CD, ‘Ten Rapid: Amazon