Probably one of the more accessible acts usually classified as being part of the thoroughly nondescript genre of "post-rock," Scottish group Mogwai (yes named from the film Gremlins) formed in 1995 and two years later unleashed their powerful, emotionally resonant debut full-length Young Team on a unsuspecting world. Post-rock is often described as using rock music instrumentation (namely guitars and drums) to produce material that isn’t radio-friendly, song-like rock music, and this description would certainly apply to Mogwai's sound. The band's music often starts off with just a simply melody which slowly (usually over the course of several minutes) builds to a cathartic cacophony of sound. In doing so, most of the joy in listening to the band's music is in the crescendos that almost always figure into the mix. Sometimes, these increases in volume are sudden, seeming to come out of nowhere (resulting, famously, in perhaps the most earth-shattering moment on Young Team), at other points, the build up is gradual, with layers of sound eventually adding up to a magnificent, grandiose explosion of sound.
Part of the reason why the genre descriptor of "post-rock" is so problematic is due to the fact that many bands with many different sounds have been thrown into the mix and classified as "post-rock." The genre, as popularly recognized, seems to have gotten its start in the early 1990s with groups like Talk Talk and Slint's experiments with different types of songwriting that didn't apply the usual verse-chorus-verse-bridge-coda notion of songwriting (though some have traced the genre to groups like Public Image Ltd, and their abandonment of popular music sensibilities in the 1980s). These bands seemed to be more after achieving an emotional response in the listener with their music, and more often than not, they did. Along the way, Slint in particular seemed to be an influence on Mogwai's sound; Mogwai's music most often features prominent guitar parts which sound crisp and chunky, much like the sound produced by Slint. Additionally, the way the various guitar parts interact with each other (both bands have multiple guitar players) are similar, and the build up and evolution of the melodies becomes one of the music's main features. Personally, I would classify Mogwai, as I said, in with the more accessible post-rock groups; their sound is more rooted in popular music trends than groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor (a band whose members clearly are heavily interested in experimental and more atmospheric music and sounds). Mogwai's music is sometimes on the spacey side, but seems grounded and less likely to venture into completely unexplored territory musically speaking.
Young Team is an excellent representation of the type of music Mogwai produce, a record that seems to run the gamut between relaxing chilled-out moments of pure leisure, and furious outbursts of gnarly guitars - often in the course of one, lengthy track. Most of the songs here are instrumentals, although several do include vocal elements as more ambient sound, and one actually features a "singing" part. The band, made up on this recording of Stuart Brathwaite (guitars), Dominic Aitchison (bass, guitar), Martin Bulloch (drums), John Cummings (guitar) and Brendan O'Hare (guitar), seem to be perfectly in sync throughout the album - astounding considering that supposedly only three of these tracks were written before the actual recording process began. These players construct tracks in much the way one would expect a jazz group to operate but instead of having one instrumentalist provide a solo, after which another musician takes a shot, the purpose of the tracks is more about the combination of the sounds into a whole rather than about the individual elements.
The debut record kicks off with a quiet backmasked vocal part which leads into a pleasant melodic section with a laid back drum beat and chilled-out guitar parts. The piece has a distinct main section and "chorus" before seeming to fade away, only to reappear seconds later in a louder, more pronounced form which starts to build momentum and intensity before finally peaking with a clamorous, distortion-heavy section. This opener, entitled "Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home" basically informs the listener of what to expect on the album, but I'm not sure it really prepares them for the second track. "Like Herod" starts off with a very Slint-like instrumental section, its haunting bass groove plodding along under slinky guitar lines. This continues for a while until fading out, and the listener thinks he's off the hook... then... KAPOW! Grungy, distortion-drenched guitars and bass and a pummeling rhythm section come out of nowhere, assaulting the listener who had the volume cranked to hear the subtle instrumentation of the earlier section. This ambush of this second track is almost guaranteed to startle (and possibly deafen) the unassuming listener, and it’s one of the finest moments on the album, illustrating the precise craftsmanship of the songs.
As the album progresses, we get mysterious and haunting tracks like "Katrien," which takes the basic Mogwai formula and builds to a harrowing finale that seems to suggest futile urgency and is actually quite emotionally wracking. The quiet piano-driven piece"Radar Maker" comes across as a pleasant filler piece, so when similar "With Portfolio" starts, we're expecting another easy-listening track only to be confronted with a noisy swirling mass of electronic sounds by track's end. "Tracy" is my favorite piece on the album: a surprisingly gentle and subtle instrumental with a contemplative feel. It slowly builds momentum, but instead of ever popping its cork, just fades away in a glistening bath of glowing tones and ambient sound.
"R U Still In 2 It?" contains an actual vocal track provided by Aidan Moffat from fellow Scottish band Arab Strap. The piece ends up sounding like a lot like one of the depressive, monologue-based pieces performed by Moffat's band (minus the frank, sexually suggestive lyrics that would make most listener's blush), and is another melancholic yet relaxing piece contrasting the more bombastic parts of Young Team. The album finishes with "Mogwai Fear Satan," a lengthy piece that's all about escalation and release, as it does so several times becoming incredibly intense by its midway point, then easing off for the remaining several minutes. I've got to hand it to Mogwai for laying this track down as a closer - it not only takes the listener to the top of the mountain in terms of impactful instrumental music, but it gathers them in its arms and lets them down slowly: the perfect closer for this disc.
After, deservedly, being widely acclaimed upon its release, 2008 saw the release of a two-disc version of this album, which contains a pair of outtakes, two compilation tracks, and five live recordings. The two outtakes were justifiably removed from the album: I don't feel that "Young Face Gone Wrong" and "I Don't Know What To Say" would have added to the album. They're interesting short pieces (the former a quiet piano-heavy piece, the latter more of a sound collage work), but would have been pure filler on the original album release. "I Can't Remember" has an electronic beat applied to a haunting guitar melody, and eventually works into a definite groove, sounding, to me, like an Italian spy movie theme. "Honey" was taken from the compilation tribute to influential psyche-drone group Spacemen 3; it's kind of an odd track, seeming quite upbeat in comparison to the general feel of Young Team. It also has dominant vocals, which never quite seem to fit with the jangly instrumental parts. As a cover, it seems to abandon the psychedelic touches of Spacemen 3 version, but the track does seem an accurate representation of how Mogwai would visualize and play the same song. The live tracks on the 2-disc edition are "Katrien," "R U Still in 2 It?" "Like Herod," "Summer (Priority)," and "Mogwai Fear Satan." The recording quality is good if not excellent, and I found it remarkable how true to the album versions these songs are when performed in a live setting. All in all, the two-disc version contains some interesting selections, but overall, there's nothing here to really warrant going out of your way to get this version (also, all but one of these tracks are available on other Mogwai recordings or compilations).
Young Team really set a high standard for Mogwai to live up to, a notion that still makes some of their albums pale in comparison to the juggernaut that this debut album was. The album is excellent from the opening track, and maintains an intriguing, surprisingly compelling intensity throughout. It seems to hit several pinnacles of emotional resonance with the listener despite the fact that there's almost no vocals to be found anywhere, and as guitar-rock or "post-rock" or whatever you want to call it, the composition is outstanding and very complex. Personally, I find Mogwai to occupy the second banana position in the post-rock pantheon (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for me, is at good as it gets), but their output over the years has been stellar in terms of quantity as well as quality. I'd certainly recommend this disc to almost anyone; in my opinion, it’s more digestible than other "post-rock" offerings, yet still maintains the genre's general ideology and feel.