With each album, Mogwai discovers new ways of balancing the power and subtlety of their music. On The Hawk Is Howling, the band returns to its roots, working with producer Andy Miller for the first time in a decade and delivering its first set of completely instrumental songs in several albums' time. This is the most massive Mogwai's music has felt in quite awhile -- and for a band that turns in expansive pieces as regularly as they do, that's saying something. "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" opens the album with shades of Mr. Beast's sparkling beauty, but it uses every second of its nearly seven minutes to more climactic effect than the previous album's subdued approach: beginning with intertwining pianos and keyboards, it teeters on the edge between beautiful and ominous, ratcheting up the tension until the song finally dies out with a violin that bleeds into feedback. That still doesn't quite prepare listeners for the wallop that "Batcat" -- which is The Hawk Is Howling's lead single -- packs. It's no secret that Mogwai loves metal and has never shied away from heaviness in their own music, but even their most churning workouts seemed to hover; "Batcat" hits the ground hard, and with a blunter impact, than any of their previous guitar workouts.
As fantastic as "Batcat" is, it represents The Hawk Is Howling only as proof of how wide-ranging the album's sound is. "The Sun Smells Too Loud" is aptly trippy and surprisingly poppy, with wispy electronic textures and a huge rhythm section that gives the song almost planetary heft; and though "Daphne and the Brain" doesn't hit any peaks or valleys, its rolling majesty and shadowy guitar melodies are still awe-inspiring. Between these major statements, The Hawk Is Howling takes breathers with smaller-scale tracks, like the glittering "Kings Meadow," that reveal their intricacy with repeated listens. The album's second half expands on that subtlety in different ways: Though the Heathers-quoting "I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School" climaxes in a skewering guitar solo, it's preceded by six minutes of artful counterpoint and jazz-tinged drumming; "Scotland's Shame" takes the opposite approach, with strong rhythms propelling a pensive melody for a uniquely mournful yet hard-hitting result. These tracks demand close listening, which makes "The Precipice"'s slow-burning tribal rhythms and swarming guitars even more dramatic as the album's final statement. At first, it's tempting to want all of The Hawk Is Howling to be as obviously powerful as its biggest tracks, but with time it reveals itself as one of Mogwai's most masterful blends of delicacy and strength. ~ Heather Phares