To get a job for French television, it helps when you’ve written the soundtrack to a seminal documentary on the country’s greatest footballer, Zinédine Zidane. Indeed, this secured Mogwai’s chance to switch to the smaller screen and provide the soundtrack for Canal Plus’ new zombie thriller, Les Revenants (or ‘Ghosts’).
While nowadays one cannot move without something to do with zombies or supernatural beings being shown on screen, Les Revenants sounds much more interesting and original: a cross between Village Of The Damned, Twin Peaks and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Couple that with Stuart Braithwaite’s support of the series’ director, Fabrice Gobert, and it makes Mogwai the ideal choice for something that, in all probability, could end up on BBC Four: critically popular, yet suitably art house and ‘cultured’ enough.
What made Mogwai’s soundtrack to Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait a success is how perfectly it helped illustrate the mercurial nature of Zidane: at times delicate, subtle and minimal (for example Terrific Speech 2), while at others majestic, unpredictable and unstable (Wake Up And Go Berserk). In this sense, Zidane was the perfect post-rock subject. Indeed, delicate, subtle and minimal aren’t aspects you often associate with post-rock, as the most recent Godspeed You! Black Emperor album demonstrated.
But contrary – and somewhat lazily – to what many have said, Mogwai have always done this well, even going as far back as 1997′s studio debut Young Team. Yet Mogwai have taken this further with Les Revenants: the first thing you notice is how short the tracks are, with just one – What Are They Doing in Heaven – over five minutes long, while nine of the fourteen tracks clock in at under four minutes. Post-rock pieces at pop song length is certainly a rarity.
Opener Hungry Face is a rather befitting title for something zombie-related, but it doesn’t sound entirely apocalyptic, zombie-like or daunting: haunting yes, largely due to the cello and Martin Bulloch’s thunderous drumming, but the glinting glockenspiel brings a tint of the heavenly. Meanwhile, following track Jaguar elicit typical ghost-like, chilling images thanks to echoic yet minimal piano and chilling violin.
In the case of both tracks, both just over two minutes long, the brevity works. As a soundtrack, the music would no doubt support and heighten the image and plot on screen; as an album, the imagination is allowed to briefly roam, something a post-rock track, usually due to sheer length or sound, can often prevent: this provokes the senses rather than inflicting them.
This theme of evoking one’s imagination is carried throughout the record: the longer This Messiah Needs Watching carries more menace with its distorted guitar and bass, yet contrasts with the serene sounding keyboard; while the 1:40 long Whiskey Time is placid and relaxed, this time marrying song title with content. Meanwhile, Special N is a particular standout, with keyboards, violins and Bulloch’s drums all combining in a meditative yet softly anthemic fashion, leaving you wanting more. Yes, brevity works here.
All this delicateness and subtlety means that when the beefier tracks arrive, they provide a satisfying contrast. Portugal’s heavily distorted guitar with a backdrop of strings and album closer Wizard Motor, with its heavy build-up of organ before launching into an assault of layered guitar and highly-tuned piano in the background, are more ‘traditionally’ post-rock – inflicting the senses rather than provoking them.
However, falling between these two is What Are They Doing in Heaven Today – a beautiful track, which sees Mogwai do late Spiritualized and Braithwaite take on the air of Jason Pierce. The lyrics (“What are they doing in Heaven, today? The sun, the sorrow, are all done away”) could easily have featured on Songs in A&E or Sweet Heart Sweet Light, although that’s certainly not to suggest that this is an imitation – this is in keeping with the album’s at times minimal nature, with just piano, touches of bass and the vocal helping propel the track. A treat – and a sign for things to come?
Ultimately, to fully appreciate Les Revenants, one obviously needs to see how it works as a soundtrack within the series itself – in fact, the soundtrack could well act as a driver for those on this side of the Channel to give this a watch: there’s no sense of stereotypical blood and gore evoked here.
Nevertheless, like British Sea Power have recently done with Man of Aran and From the Land to the Sea Beyond, Mogwai have again produced a soundtrack that stands up as an album in its own right. For those newly discovering Mogwai, perhaps thanks to the series, it’s a very promising place to begin; for more long-standing fans, it’s another successful addition to their catalogue.
(review by: lee d.)