Mogwai are part of a set palette of immensities: there is infinite space, there is bottomless ocean, and there is this post-rock band from Glasgow.
I hesitate even to use ‘post-rock’, but I try to sidestep the controversy by basing my definition entirely on the sound of Mogwai itself. See, trying to describe one’s devotion will always result in a minor case of effing up the ineffable. You can get real cultic about this stuff. So when The Quietus announced an intimate London show to anticipate the release of latest album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, it was no surprise that it sold out before most folks could find their debit cards.
There was rage. Some eBay skulduggery was afoot. But so it goes.
The large flock of early birds enjoy a set from fellow Glaswegian outfit Remember Remember: a band of one, folded out into six or seven members. Each mans one of the elements that Graeme Ronald usually weaves into one sonic cable: guitars, bass, and drums, the characteristic glockenspiels and Korg. It’s refreshing to hear a full band implement the distinctive “building” structure of looped instrumentals; each layer seems to add marrow and meat and skin till the song wakes fully formed, and walks. Ronald starts with single ‘Imagining Things (i)’, which has a kind of cartoon woodland charm at its outset, resplendent with folksy picking and those glocks. But all these songs are stilted crescendos, which fight past the refrains and accelerate; the acceleration feels infinite. As the set continues the glockenspiels take on a different character, darkening as they duel together; by the last song, ‘Ghost Frequency’ (from EP Scorpii) enormous basslines have begun to emerge, the guitar is fucking driving: it’s beyond hypnotic, and feels like psych-folk poured into the loud/quiet post-rock mould. Likenesses to Tunng, Mice Parade and Efterklang crop up and are blasted away again. I feel fairly safe in saying that Remember Remember live are the most badass glockenspiel band in Britain.
After another apocalyptically dark Quietus DJ set, Mogwai emerge, to no great fanfare. This suits them. They are some of the most unremarkable-looking musicians ever, aside from bassist Dominic Aitchison, whose brow is perpetually deep-scored with intensity. What is remarkable is the easy, friendly nature of these blokes, whose sound can be so menacing and so beautiful. No pretension; they gad about, grin a lot at each other, have one false start and then it’s straight in with the new album’s opener.
The subtly different nature of Hardcore comes through immediately in ‘White Noise’ with its straight-upward trajectory, climbing up shimmery major scales and crisp-as-hell cymbals. Not that Mogwai have never sounded bright or optimistic before – but this a near-Jónsi level of sunshine. (Fitting, that the letter “A” in the current logo is a silhouetted person leaping for the sky.)
One song in and we have our first ‘Glasgow Mega-Snake’ request. No dice for that punter, but an immense roar (the first of many) still goes up as the stern groove of ‘Killing All The Flies’ swims out. The indecipherable, soda-stream vocals are in place, and the drums are so thick and tight it’s suddenly begging to be rapped over. The old and the new continue to duel from there. The thump, chopped electronics and grandeur of ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ gives way to the dusty, mournful ‘Letters to the Metro’, which though new seems to allude to the dirty twilit melodies of Rock Action. These are chased up with ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ from previous album The Hawk Is Howling, full of dirgey piano which spreads into echo like ink-clouds, before another surreal new track, ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. It is alarming when Braithwaite attacks his mic and jagged, chipmunked vocals come out – but throughout these shiny new acquisitions the audience are never less than rapt and drooling a bit into their beards.
In the second half of the setlist, however, shit arguably gets real, first with ‘Ithica 27/9’, a nigh-on 14-year-old beauty which lilts in slow circles then judders into life like an old propeller, and explodes into a Mogwai-brand soundwall before its end (whose fit of shredding is thankfully the last and most masturbatory gesture seen tonight). Then there’s ‘How to be a Werewolf’, whose indie riffs and bright shards make the lycanthrope lifestyle sound almost preppily collegiate. Mr Beast single ‘Friend of the Night’ is the nobler creature, an enormous thing on delicate piano-feet, lumbering on like a Miyazaki monster. Though I freak out a bit at the inclusion of one of my favourite songs, the sound is a letdown here, with said piano buried and the guitar notes oddly dry. Never mind. ‘Rano Pano’ is loud and clear, meandering grungily like a dragon singing the Koran; the riff asserts and reasserts itself, buffets our heads back and forth in nodding obedience.
They thank us for our raucous applause, adding, “we thought playing a show to 200 people in London would be a much more miserable experience.” We’re rewarded with ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ and ‘Batcat’, possibly the best one-two punch ending to a show ever: the former warm and doleful, the latter full of such penetrating malice that they blow an amp before they can start it properly. ‘Batcat’ is the closest a shut-in as myself will probably ever get to metal, and it brings out the Norse god in everyone involved; it is the hellblazer and the dead-raiser, and I feel almost too full for the encore.
This consists of B-side ‘Hasenheide’ then ‘My Father My King’, which, despite being a closing song of legend for the band, doesn’t feel as epic as its 20-minute-plus span should merit. It’s a two-part thrashing of Jewish melody, bearing the gift of tinnitus a lot of fans came for, but it’s hard to find the feeling behind it after so many examples of Mogwai’s current, more structured, melodic direction.
Most of the band leaves, and the song subsides into throbbing white noise, which Braithwaite messes with on the pedals while gurning all demonic like Aphex Twin. Eventually the stage is empty but for two roadies who count down together to call time. We cheer for the roadies, we cheer for the long-absent band, and we cheer for the clever White Noise bookends. We cheer inwardly for the silence outside, which can feel like one long framing technique for those fantastic, indiscriminate, battering sound-waves. You leave with all the thought blasted out of you; it’s a cleansing experience. Didn’t I tell you this could get cultic?