“…If someone said that Mogwai were the stars, I would not object. If the stars had a sound it would sound like this…”.
So goes the spacey, rambling spoken word intro to the first track of Mogwai’s first album, 1997’s Young Team. I have no idea whether the speaker means the band, or their namesake (the creature from Gremlins), or the Cantonese word for “evil spirit”, but I have always suspected it is the latter.
After all, it would be pretentious for a band to talk themselves up like that before making it big, but especially in a notoriously pretentious genre of music, Mogwai have always seemed humble. They say little during live performances, with introductions like “Thanks everyone. We are Mogwai, from Glasgow”, as if they are unknown and fresh from the high school gym scene.
Mogwai apparently do not like being called a “post-rock” band, despite Young Team being generally considered a foundational post-rock album, released the same year as Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s much denser F#A#∞. I don’t blame them. It is cliché to say, but Mogwai kind of defy description.
I would say that all Mogwai songs sound like the soundtrack highlight to a movie you have heard of, but have not seen. That is me trying my best, and it isn’t good enough.
The Scottish group have been at it for 20 years now. In that time, their releases have become more accessible, digestible and electronic, although the quality (in this reviewer’s opinion) has never suffered. The band has also retained a sense of humour and self-awareness, with delightfully inspired song titles such as “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead”, and “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School” (both tracks off their 2008 album The Hawk Is Howling, whose cover features a bald eagle with a closed beak. So many levels).
Mogwai graced the Danforth Music Hall on December 5, 2017. Their ninth and latest album (not counting various compilations and scores they have done), Every Country’s Sun, dropped a few months earlier, and it is excellent while being possibly the most accessible Mogwai album to date. If you are new to the band, this is a fine place to start.
Longtime guitarist John Cummings left the band shortly before, and they added a younger touring guitarist who I was not familiar with, but fit the bill just fine. I was also surprised to see a young female firebrand with a Miley Cyrus haircut behind the drums, but she absolutely killed every song, particularly her fills on the epic fan favourite “Mogwai Fear Satan”. I later learned that this was Cat Myers from the band Honeyblood, subbing in for regular drummer Martin Bulloch who is off due to illness.
The band opened with new song “Crossing the Road Material”, which is an album highlight and more than done justice live, and we were off to the races. Mogwai have a deep catalogue, and although their set was heavy on new songs, they threw in some classics both expected (“Friend of the Night”), and not at all expected (“Killing all the Flies”). Of the songs off Every Country’s Sun, both the title track and “Don’t Believe the Fife” were absolute powerhouses, whereas single “Party in the Dark” was somewhat muddled in its mix, and the only less-than-perfectly executed track of the night. In all, the band stuck to their heavier, punchier numbers in lieu of their softer ballads. Fans hoping to chill out to the likes of “Ithica” or “Take Me Somewhere Nice” may have been disappointed, but I was too busy rocking out to notice.
The true highlight, however, was the slower song “Cody” off their sophomore release, Come on Die Young, one of only two songs all evening that featured vocals (cough “post rock” cough). Founding member Stuart Braithwaite assumed vocal duties, and whereas the recorded version’s vocals are purposely distorted and underwater-sounding, Stuart sang clean and sounded good. A short way into this number, a friend said to me “I feel like we’re at the Roadhouse”, referring to the ethereal, trapped-between-worlds bar in Twin Peaks. He was not wrong. This is that cinematic quality of Mogwai at work.
The set was short, at less than two hours, and like any fan there were numbers I would have loved to hear but didn’t (“Auto Rock”, namely). Also, Mogwai pretty well stick to the script, so if you’re a jam band aficionado and favour live shows for the improvisation, they may have disappointed you. But if you knew their work going in, and love it, then like myself you probably nodded ferociously with a demented grin the entire time.
The encore was a heavy one-two punch: the sinister future funk of “Remurdered” giving way to the swelling roar of molten guitars on “We’re No Here”. The show ended with at least one minute of ringing distortion where my hearing used to be.
After the show, I heard snippets from the uninitiated, the friends and significant others who were more or less dragged along. The consensus was of pleasant surprise and mild stupor. I daresay there were converts, hoping that these Scots return to town sooner rather than later.
I would not object.