It's barely a minute into Mogwai's fourth LP before we get a breathtaking glimpse of all that makes the group stand out from its postrock brethren. After a plaintive guitar passage kicks off "Hunted by a Freak," the song suddenly ascends to the heavens on rails of distortion, violins, and untranslatable vocoder utterances. Apparently little of the Glaswegian five-piece's power and bombast was lost during the respite between now and 2001's Rock Action. Just like that previous album, Happy Music for Happy People finds Mogwai using whatever technological tools or dynamics are necessary to marry rock's aggression with compositional form. But despite brief moments of transcendence, the group ultimately fails to wrap its impressive technical chops around significant human emotion.
That said, Mogwai definitely deserves props for refusing to retreat into obvious stadium-rock theatrics that would otherwise submerge the material in clichés. The screeching walls of noise the band evokes on "Killing All the Flies" and "Stop Coming to My House" show that guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings know enough about their instruments to overpower any modern-rock-act content. "I Know You Are But What Am I?" indicates that Radiohead isn't the only group that can integrate IDM-style electronics into its repertoire without sacrificing its sonic identity. But the somber, high-minded mood and tone of Mogwai's sound hasn't really changed much, which will make some people happy and will force others to wonder about the group's limitations.
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