Normally when I review an album I sit down with it and really think about how it makes me feel, and generally just go with the flow. If I don’t like it, I don’t write about it…there’s enough cynicism in the world…right? When this new album from Mugstar popped into my in box I was first of all very excited that there was a new album from this Liverpool four piece, but then the anticipation went up a notch when I saw it was being released on Mogwai’s Rock Action Records which suggested that this could be a really special release indeed.
As a result I’ve taken more time than usual in listening to this album (vinyl-wise it’s a double) which has given me something of problem; because every time I listen to it I seem to get something extra out of it: something which I don’t think is going to change in a hurry. Make no mistake this is a very special album, and if it doesn’t make my end of year ‘Essential’ list then it will have had to have been a fully exceptional year for music.
The album kicks off with ‘Unearth’ a track which you will recognise as Mugstar within the first thirty seconds with the band’s trademark bass lines and the Tibetan sounding ritual chanting. This is a track that I think the band have been playing live for a while, and which totally explodes into an Axis Modulator style repetitive pattern at about three minutes in, before settling into a quite beautiful guitar sequence which is as melodious as anything I have heard from Mugstar. This is a strong opening statement from a band who are meeting my absurdly high expectations from the outset.
Next up is the lead track, ‘Flemish Wave’, which repeats the pattern of ‘Unearth’ in that it begins slowly and explodes into something that is complex and exciting. This is a track that really gets you as it further builds and then locks into a groove that continues to intensify as the band coalesce into a machine-like loop…this is motorik: the next generation; this is Neu transcended…Mugstar have totally moved on up.
So far so good and I’m thinking that this might just be Mugstar’s finest album to date…Then ‘Time Machine’ kicks in and takes it up another gear. Bloody hell what a track this is…starting at a fair pelt this takes you forward through the centuries like a starship overheating and heading for a final and glorious end into a supernova millions of years from now. This is a band whose star-date has arrived…intense, and yet spacey and open.
The only problem that I have had with the tracks so far is that they have seemed far too short…each one (at five or six minutes) has had me wanting it to go on for at least ten minutes more…but those first three tracks with be a side of vinyl that I imagine I will play again and again once I get hold of it.
Clocking in at over fifteen minutes ‘Remember The Breathing’ promises to be something that might not quite have the intensity of the first three tracks but instead is something more considered. This is a track on which the band do remember to breathe, and with it allows the listener space to think and allows the track to permeate their mind. This is a great track to just zone out to, to drift away and think about the nature of things…perhaps even concentrate on the breath and be mindful. Certainly in the context of the album it comes just at the right time to allow the power of the first three tracks to dissipate.
As ‘Remember The Breathing’ fades you get a feeling of enhanced awareness which is just the right place to be for ‘La Vallee’ with its slow and lilting drone forming the foundation of a track which has a effervescent melange of jazz grooves and blues riffs which take the band furthest away yet from when we perhaps think it should be. This is followed by the album’s title track, which is a further exploration of slower and more bucolic tones. As with ‘La Vallee’ there is a gentleness and fragility to this number, and far from the more brutal in your face pounding of side one, there is a real sense the Mugstar are exploring fresh textures and gaining fresh understanding of what is possible.
This sense of calm remains with ‘Regency Blues’, which perhaps has more in common with some of the band’s earlier works than the previous few tracks. Founded initially on eastern beats and kraut/ psych guitar the number slowly grows and opens up in what I find to be a really fluid way. This is certainly not the most fresh and innovative track on the album, but its no filler either. It is a mark of the quality of this album that this track does not stand out as extraordinary.
The beginning of ‘Sky West and Crooked’ is wonderfully precise and intricate…nothing is out of place and every note has meaning and purpose. Of all the tracks on the album thin is the one that most demands a close and carefully listen if it is to be fully appreciated, because if you do your reward will be the sort of feeling of well-being you don’t get that often. This, for me, is the track that tells me that the band have really moved onto the next level with this album it takes real skill and understanding to do something this delicate and stripped-back.
The final track, ‘Ascension Island’, begins very mysteriously with a sense of mist wafting over and bleak and foreboding landscape. Something, you sense, is not right here…there is a sinister presence that is about to reveal itself during the track’s seventeen plus minutes. Slowly the tempest intensifies and the mist gives way to darkness as the intense guitar guides you through an otherwise ambient soundscape redolent with sounds of a dense undergrowth. Here you get the real feeling of being on an exotic journey with unfamiliar sounds and smells…amplified by the darkness and ambience. It’s one of those tracks where you can close your eyes and lose all sense of time and place…it could be half and hour long or it could have been five minutes…and in your mind you could have been anywhere.
At the end you are brought gently back to reality in the conclusion to an album that has taken you through a real panoply of feelings and emotions. An album that explores sounds and the space(s) between them in great detail. It is, I imagine, an album that has been the result of much exploration and has resulted in the band growing as a unit.
Rarely after listening to an album do I just want to sit in silence for a moment to think about what I have heard, but ‘Magnetic Seasons’ by Mugstar is such a record…it is an album whose four sides each mark out something different…these, I imagine, are the seasons of the title. Separately they all stand up as something that is great and rewarding according to different moods…together they form Mugstar’s most complete work to date, a collection of tracks that marks a evolution of the band’s sound to a new level of complexity, cogency and consistency.
‘Magnetic Seasons’ is released on Rock Action Records on March 4th 2016.