How odd it must be, playing in Mogwai: You record a scrappy-yet-seminal debut (1997's post-rock standard-bearer Young Team), decide in hindsight that it's actually the worst thing you've done, and yet 11 years on, there your fans are, demanding the raw explosiveness of those salad days, when you've long since graduated to haute cuisine. Mogwai has done some exploding in the interim: From 1999's Come On Die Young to 2006's Mr. Beast (which the band considers the actual best thing they've ever done), Mogwai's strongest songs have always capitalized on the quiet/loud, heavy/heavier theatrics of the band's live show. In the studio, however, the balance has shifted significantly since Young Team: Guitar-saturated peaks and valleys have eroded into arty electronic plateaus, and those noisy, distended epics have shrunk into ill-fitting three-minute constraints.
On paper, then, The Hawk Is Howling should be the balm that fans have been seeking. Featuring some of the longest tracks since 2001's Rock Action, the record reunites Mogwai with Young Team producer Andy Miller, and—at least in its opening one-two punch ("I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" and the grinding, fuzz-drenched "Batcat")—rediscovers the intense emotional-visceral buildup that's endeared Mogwai to metalheads and indie rockers alike. After that, though, it's a different story. Beyond a few grand crescendos ("I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School" and "The Precipice"), Hawk wades through the electronic textures and the roiling, tentative mood pieces that make Mogwai's weaker tunes logical (if not ideal) soundtrack fodder. The result, unfortunately, is a lot of running in place, when at this point it'd be far more daring to aim skyward.