Wednesday, 29 October 2008

We're No Here

Mogwai -- Live @ Edinburgh Corn Exchange (with support from Errors and Fuck Buttons), Tuesday 21st October 2008

Main Set: The Precipice/ Friend of the Night/ Stanley Kubrick/ I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead/ Christmas Steps/ Scotland's Shame/ Hunted by a Freak/ I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School/ Thank You Space Expert/ Like Herod/ Batcat

New Paths to Helicon part. 1/ We're No Here

It's not a good start -- we turn up half an hour after the doors were supposed to open to find that the power is down in the venue, and that the gig might be canceled. No real chance of an acoustic Mogwai set, we suppose, though the idea is intriguing.

Zombie hordes of Mogwai fans stumble out to local pubs and sports clubs. It's an odd scene, to say the least:

(Photo by Liam K)

Skip forward half-an-hour and a generator has arrived and Errors are on the stage. They sound like a Mogwai rip-off band for all of thirty seconds before the beats and bleeps kick in and the whole crowd starts to twitch. By the time they've wound themselves up to unleash 'Toes', their noodly guitar parts have attained concise, rhythmic drive that matches Battles at their best, and we love them for it.

Fuck Buttons, not so much. There are moments of beauty, moments where the noise finds a groove or else just hits you so hard that you find yourself awed, but their fragmentary aesthetic leaves us looking for a bit more commitment. Liam K finds it awkward that no one is dancing to dancy bits; I just wish they'd let the noise linger a little.

And on that topic, here come the headliners!

(Photo by Liam K, again)

"Celtic got pumped 3-0 by Man Utd" says a sad-faced Stuart Braithwaite. Ah, you can take the boys out of Glasgow, but you can't take the Glasgow out of the boys...

Anyway: enough of the home town chatter. Watching Mogwai live I feel like I'm listening to genuine masters at work. It's like being in the presence of a great singer or instrumentalist, an artist who has a genuinely unique voice and who knows how to get the most out of it. The same build and release structure that can sound limiting on record is reliably cathartic live, but what's truly remarkable is the multitude of different ways Mogwai find to fill out this template, the different shades of noise they cast out at the audience during their minimal, instrumental workouts.

Set-opener 'The Precipice' is best described as inevitable: its interlocking guitar lines cannot help but push towards a heroic, almost heavy metal climax. This pattern now thoroughly established, Mogwai run through a trio of songs that show how subtle their use of noise can be. The shimmering guitar line that rises through 'Friend of the Night' is a joyous counterpart to that song's rising piano lines; when it fades to faint buzz during 'Stanley Kubrick', the same tone somehow sounds grim and defiant. By the time the noise emerges again to swallow the mid-section of 'I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead' it has become totally desolate, an ear-drum ravaging cry of despair.
Some songs seem to toy with the audience, teasing them with delicate guitar patterns before finally exploding into a violent rage. This is the classic Mogwai live trick, but tonight I'm more impressed by the songs which calmly explore their own sonic identity. The vocoder-driven 'Hunted By A Freak' is a perfect mix of the alien and the anthemic, and the crowd greet it like a number one hit from an alternate reality, which it probably is. 'Scotland's Shame', meanwhile, keeps its anger just below the surface, with John Cumming's guitar part scraping against the wall of sound without ever really damaging it. Of all these melancholy wonders, it's 'Thank You Space Expert' that impresses the most. Cold and austere on record, live the band counterpoint its stark melodies with the sort of glorious guitar fuzz that just begs to be called warm. It's a simple contrast, but one that makes the song every bit as dynamic as the loud-quiet-loud numbers.
Speaking of which: 'Like Herod' both obliterates the Mogwai formula and serves as its in-set climax. Remarkable as the song is, what's most impressive about this rendition is the way that it's final white-noise meltdown lurches into the brutal squalls of 'Batcat', complete with its own bizarro animation:

(Photo by, yes, that's right -- Liam K!)

From this point on Mogwai are playing within the noise, finding ways to make it peak and crest without abandoning it altogether. It's the final, bloody release of the main set, and as such it verges on the apocalyptic.

When they come back to play an encore, Mogwai don't dial it down, but they do show even more range. As always, 'New Paths to Helicon part 1' is open and dreamlike, romantic where 'Batcat' was vicious. It's a beautiful song -- the sort of thing that demands videos full of couples snogging in slow motion, but in a good way. By the time 'We're No Here' lurches into being, I can only just make out the changes, but that "only just" is the important thing. Unlike the rest of the set this final song doesn't so much call up emotion as lay waste to the crowd. It's an almost purely physical experience, and when the group leave the stage it becomes clearer and ever who the real star of the evening has been: the noise, which blares on their absence, beautiful and triumphant.

(Drawing by Jenny Soep)

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