Mogwai – Live review
MOGWAI + THE TWILIGHT SAD
ACADEMY 1 MANCHESTER
26 FEB 2011
Mogwai are playing the Academy again. Stop and think about this for a minute and it should warm the soul of anyone who despairs at the conveyor belt of production-line chart acts, hyped-up next big things and drainpipes-by-numbers indie bands that generally tread these boards. Here’s a band who emerged in the mid to late 90s, when British guitar music was exemplified by beige post-Britpop schmindie plodders such as Travis, with a debut album (“Young Team”) which still sounds astonishing today, never mind then. They ripped up the rock’n’roll rulebook and wrote their own, involving fifteen minute instrumental epics and quiet-loud dynamics. 14 years later and their seventh album, the exceptionally titled “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” (and the track titles are even better; though sadly tonight’s gig will not feature “George Square Thatcher Death Party”) is being feted as their best for years. Your “man in the street” may not have heard of them, but the big stage is deserved and as the venue fills up – not quite sold out but not far off – justified.
With Mogwai headline sets known to run for a couple of hours these days it’s the early bird indeed that catches the support here, going on at five past eight, but these early birds are well rewarded. The Twilight Sad play indie guitar music but this is very much not your drainpipes-by-numbers stuff and after catching them headlining various 250 capacity venues around Manchester over the past couple of years it’s a delight to hear them coming through the Academy’s massive speakers. This is one seriously powerful guitar band. Their melodies are dark and brooding, beautiful in a screwed-up sort of way and with words to match; stories of childhood at best unsettled and at worst, well, the brilliance is in what they don’t say but it leaves you hoping it’s not autobiographical. This is a band whose merchandise includes the currently de-rigeur shopping bag, but the Twilight Sad’s has “PROSTITUTE” in bold type. I’m not sure who exactly is likely to buy one. Drummer Mark Devine is incredible, his thunderous shifted rhythms building like storm clouds – and then there’s singer James Graham. Standing side-on or crouching in the shadows he is the very definition of intense, each song like some sort of cathartic exorcism; you can’t take your eyes off him. Never mind your Interpols and your Editors, bands who appropriated the guitar sounds and the song structures without ever understanding the depths; these unassuming-looking Glaswegians are the true heirs to the almighty Chameleons’ beautiful blackness. Back in the bar people are still arriving, sadly oblivious to what they just missed.
Mogwai’s set starts, as does that new album, with some “White Noise” – a title more literally decsriptive of its contents than most of their output, as layers build upon layers until little bright lights of melody emerge – and the scene is set for the next two hours. Guitars will soar and dive, there will be grand swollen crescendos crashing over cliff faces and parts where there is little more than a whisper coming out of those towering stacks (the band have previously chastised fans for talking through the quiet bits and tonight the message seems to have got through, for the most part). There is little in the way of performance theatrics; just five ordinary looking blokes called Barry & Stuart & Martin & Dominic & John (as their version of that popular T-shirt design lists them) standing playing their instruments. For two hours? Yep.
Now even fans will joke about how every new Mogwai album just sounds like, well, like Mogwai really – but in this career-crossing set the scope of the band’s output seems broader then you’d have thought. The first-album fifteen minute quiet-loud epic “Mogwai Fear Satan” is next (and doesn’t pretty much every instrumental post-rock act of the past decade owe something to the way it all crashes and explodes half way through?) and then we’re straight back to the present day with “Rano Pano” whose three-guitar riff seems to encircle itself… and if you think I’m going to spend all night writing down track titles (not that I’m any good at remembering them for instrumental bands anyway) then you can think again, this is a sound to be savoured and not dissected. Somewhere in the maelstrom there will be “Travel Is Dangerous” in which the band come as close as they ever do to regular indie (there’s even singing on it), sequences of driving motorik rhythms whoch could have escaped from a 1970s Neu! album, and the beautiful dark atmospheric piece which concludes that new album under the typically Mogwai-esque title of “You’re Lionel Richie”. And somehow two hours just slip by, and then the lights come up and we are back in the real world.
There are those who despite a voracious appetite for live music will not go and see this band, because there is none of the interactivity you get at many gigs: words are so few and far between you can’t sing along, there will be little in the way of banter, and you won’t go home soaked in the sweat of strangers. That’s not Mogwai, though. The greatest of “post-rock” bands are more akin to watching a classical music performance, and nobody calls out the Halle because their cellist keeps his shirt on; the involvement comes from complete absorption in the sound, from letting it soak through you and out into the universe beyond. It’s not for everyone, sure, but if it is your thing then it’s a joy to report that Britain’s finest and longest established purveyors of such are right back at the top of their game.