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In movie trailers, brooding guitars chiming to sonic orgasm are now as common as the angsty buttrock in military-recruitment ads. But with instrumental guitar groups like Explosions in the Sky now heard on TV shows like Friday Night Lights, is there anywhere left for this cinematic strain of indie-rock to go? Mogwai’s latest, The Hawk Is Howling, proves there’s still unexplored vistas on Old Post-Rock Mountain. Where other members of the small army of instrumental acts who followed the Glaswegian band have largely gone up their own bleak asses (see any of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor spinoffs), Mogwai still strikes the right balance between instinct and intellect. Part of this is due to the fact that the group hasn’t tweaked its formula much since its 1997 debut EP 4 Satin: crystalline guitars and molasses tempos foreshadow walloping finales that take their sweet time to unfold. The Hawk Is Howling’s opener, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” adequately distills Mogwai’s musical sensibilities. Kicking off with brooding piano, the song slowly picks up steam until its hazy melodies converge in a swell of atmospheric guitar and retro strings. Subsequent cut “Batcat” verges on metal, with distorted bass and thrumming percussion hitting like a bag of soggy concrete. “Danphe and the Brain” offers pealing piano and gooey guitar interlocked in the cough-syrup equivalent of the Chariots of Fire theme. Equally hypnotic is the minor-key meditation “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School”: At the song’s climax, the band’s full firepower is unleashed in a punishing display of sonic shock and awe. Closing cut “The Precipice” surfs a massive wave of guitar and tribal percussion to a shuddering conclusion that serves as a perfect setup for the inevitable sequel. The Hawk Is Howling, like Mogwai’s 1999 masterpiece, Come On Die Young, makes expert use of space and tension. Restraint is as much a part of Mogwai’s sonic aesthetic as are thunderous climaxes. The band’s latest rewards detailed listening, but it’s also great background music for your own mini-movies. Mundane acts like folding laundry are transformed into epic scenes of triumph and pathos. So who’s gonna make the first YouTube mashup of household chores performed to Mogwai jams?
Mogwai performs with Chris Brokaw at the 9:30 Club on Monday, Aug. 3.