It must be strange to be in Mogwai, and to read reviews that chastise you for sounding too much and not enough like yourself. It’s a familiar pattern, but then Mogwai are a familiar band these days. Perhaps that’s the problem: when they started out with the ten minute songs and the Blur: Are Shite t-shirts and the Bucky rage they were easier to idolise. Eight albums in, they’re a more difficult journalistic proposition. As comfortable noise merchants,opinionated men who are adamant that their music carries no pre-determined meaning, purveyors of defiantly mainstream art rock, what exactly are we supposed to make of Mogwai in 2014?
These concerns seem relevant in blog posts and in music magazines, but in the context of January’s show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall they seemed utterly meaningless, even absurd. It’s an observation that’s tired enough to seem trite by now, but Mogwai are one of those bands who you really need to see live in order to fully appreciate. 2010′s Special Moves is an excellent simulation of the band’s live dynamics that doubles as a testament to the quality of their later work, but even played at an absurdly high volume it never threatens to capture Mogwai’s true range.
There’s something in the grain of Mogwai’s live show that’s never quite made it onto their records. It’s in that washed out, trebley guitar sound that starts out sounding like an inner ear itch and then grows until it batters you bodily. The physical impact of this noise would be near-impossible to recreate without the help of plush PAs like the one in the Concert Hall, but you can hear an echo of it Mogwai’s quieter recorded moments – it haunts Happy Songs for Happy People and provides the undercurrent of barely controlled rage in their soundtrack to Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, for example. You can hear it on Rave Tapes too, but what was merely a whispered rumour on the album version of opener ‘Heard About You Last Night’ is screamed loud enough to ruin hairlines and destroy reputations in concert.
And then, just as the noise level rises to a level that might prompt Mogwai virgins to bring their earplugs into play, it stops. This is another well-established Mogwai cliche: their reliance on the loud/quiet dynamics that were a talking point for post Pixies/Nirvana rock music. From this distance, Mogwai’s debut album Young Team does indeed look like the conclusion of this particular idea of rock music, but the 2014 version of Mogwai are built on a more varied range of dichotomies.
They are poised but ecstatic, with ‘Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home’ and ‘How to Be a Werewolf’ being pretty much the same song performed with varying degrees of control and release. They are a group of middle aged, serious-faced, shaven headed men whose adherence to the ‘Lick My Love Pump’ model compels them to give their beautiful, doomy songs titles like ‘Kill Jester’ and ‘You’re Lionel Ritchie’. Most importantly, while common sense indicates that Mogwai’s predominantly downbeat approach should be totally devoid of swing and sex, there’s something irresistible about the way Luke Sutherland’s whispered vocals blur into the mechanical pulse of ‘Mexican Grand Prix’. Plus, if I can be honest enough to risk embarrassment for a second, the moment where there monumental drama of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ crashes out into a soft, supple rhythm has always felt massively lost and erotic to me, and not just in an “indie couple making out in the front row of a Swervedriver concert” sort of way. It’s all about the point where resistance breaks and threatens to become total sublimation in the other, innit?
(And as an aside, the reason why the band’s most necessary work of recent years has been done while soundtracking Douglas Gordon projects and French TV shows has something to do with the how their willingness to give themselves over completely to these projects couples with their ridiculously well defined voice. Even if it’s not as strongly here as it is in the live show, the grain of their music is still undeniably present in ‘Music for a Forgotten Future’ or ‘The Huts’ – by freeing themselves from the responsibility of Being Mogwai, they find themselves providing minimal, recurring themes that don’t work for or against the action on screen so much as they comprise a new and almost infinitely adaptable element altogether.)
Given that their live show is built on a carefully calibrated and overwhelmingly reliableseries of juxtapositions and transformations, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mogwai should continue to make new versions of the same old thing, that ‘Deesh’ should replicate their most famous crescendos with pulsing synth bass, or that the Happy Songs style vocoders of ‘The Lord is Out of Control’ should be both-swallowed and somehow clarified by the addition of the Mr Beast-era guitar sludge. This is Mogwai, loud as they ever were but also quietly different.
More importantly, this is also rock music that’s big enough to travel the world, local enough to form the heart of a scene, and free enough of self-imposed constraints – about tone and length and style and pace and instrumentation – to do what it’s trying to do, to mix nightmares and nursery rhymes together into something familiar but still new. ‘Remurdered’ provides the clearest example of this approach as it stands in 2014. Of all the songs on Rave Tapes it’s both the one that sounds least “Mogwai” and the song that seems to bear the evidence of their recent soundtrack work. If anything the John Carpenter pulses that form the basis of the song’s first half adhere more closely to established concepts of what a soundtrack should sound like than anything on Les Revenants, but again – brilliantly, paradoxically – ‘Remurdered’ is also the new song that’s built around the most exciting transition, the one that builds up and breaks down in a manner most fitting with the grand old Mogwai style. True to form, the live version of this song cranks up the volume of the guitars, but the electronics build with them, ensuring that the climax is as much rhythmic as it is textural.
Pay-offs like that are why none of the concerns listed in this post make any sense in the context of a Mogwai concert: when you’re feeling it from head to toe there’s no question about whether this quaint alchemy is valid or valuable. Mogwai are still working like they live in the early days of a better nation, and if they never quite get there then at least they’re always teasing at the possibilities of this endeavour, making it seem like a workable proposition by way of their strange populism, by their commitment to making their overwhelming emptiness sound like a source of possibility rather than an sign of any absence, and by the endless succession of build-ups that follow every breakdown.
[All images in this post are by Edinburgh-based artist Sally Mairs]