Labelled: Mogwai, Bristol, 19 January 2011 review


Mogwai - "Killing All the Flies"

Arbitrary labels rarely do justice to music or artists. Take Mogwai, who I saw in Bristol Saturday night.

Going for nearly 15 years, seven studio albums and a sheaf of singles, EPs and movie scores, Mogwai’s mostly instrumental music usually gets shoved in the “post rock” pigeon hole.

What on earth is post rock? At first, the term, believed to have been coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds, described rock music that didn’t conform to normal song structures, used non-standard instrumental ensembles and eschewed lyrics.

Whilst that could apply to Mogwai’s offerings, post rock hardly describes a musical style or movement.

As much as anything, the post rock term came to represent a musical ghetto, insult even. As far back as 1999 I recall Tortoise, the quintessential post rock super group, being derided as bringing back prog rock.

Mogwai themselves were usually associated with the phrase soft-loud formula to describe their songs.

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Whilst true that the group focussed heavily on noise, especially in their earlier work, on being very quiet and very noisy in the same song (see “Helicon 1”, “Mogwai Fear Satan”, “Xmas Steps”), this was more than a formula.

Mogwai have always been interested in the dynamics of sound, but there’s more to it than that. Through those seven albums they’ve explored song structures, instrumentation, arrangements, vocals (in Welsh and with vocoders!), beats, lyricism and, in those quiet sections, subtlety you’ll rarely hear from a rock/pop band. (See, for example, the excellent “Punk Rock”, a gentle ballad set against a monologue from Iggy “Swiftcover” Pop.)

Far from a collection of soft-loud sonic bombs, their latest album “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” is a mixed collection, including straight up proper rock tunes.

Mogwai have endured and outlasted the post rock era, if ever there was one. Their music has inspired a small number of bands ploughing the instrumental rock avenue though I’d like to think they’ve also inspired indie bands (another terrible label) that sing, such as the Twilight Sad, Saturday’s support act.

Mogwai have been part of a very productive Scottish scene since the mid-90s and as owners of a record label and general cheerleaders have helped others get the hearing they’ve deserved.

I like to think of Mogwai’s influences (admitted or otherwise):

  • heavy metal without the motorcycle leathers, bad hair, misogyny, occult references
  • punk without the self-destruction
  • prog rock without noodling, solos, bad hair, new age nonsense, impenetrable lyrics
  • a healthy disregard for Brit pop, except its tunefulness
  • the humour (where it exists) and self-regard of rap

Add to that, they have a dry, sometime sideways Glaswegian humour as reflected in song and album titles – “George Square Thatcher Death Party” from the latest album and first studio effort “Mogwai Young Team”, named after ubiquitous Glaswegian gang inspired graffiti: that is, [insert gang name] Young Team.

So what about Saturday? This was, I think, my seventh Mogwai gig, the first since the superb 2006 Royal Albert Hall concert. My first was back at the old Black Cat club in Washington DC in 1999.

The one great thing about live music is that you get a different dynamic every night. This was not one of the best nights for that. I’m not sure exactly why, but a very drunk and loud audience didn’t help.

Mogwai have never had huge stage presence. There’s no big egos on show. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is the undoubted leader, but I always get the impression that this is a bunch of friends who have common musical interests and more or less get on very well.

The music will usually do the talking and on some numbers – the opening “White Noise” for example – that worked, but sometimes that lack of stage presence detracts. And, that was the case on Saturday.

I enjoy the new album. There’s plenty of quality songs, even if it’s not classic post rock. ;-)

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