All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Farrah Skeiky
There were 10 amplifying devices and 6 monitors on stage for Mogwai at the 9:30 club this Monday. Before the show, if you looked closely enough, you could have seen me looking over this arrangement stage, my hands making tiny greedy rubbing motions not unlike Scrooge McDuck staring at his swimming pool of gold. I thought, “This is going to rock.”
“We made it,” guitarist-bassist and Bic-razor-bald Stuart Braithwaite opened, to cheers. The Scottish band had cancelled this same show twice for legitimate reasons (visas and so on), but they thanked us all for coming all the same, for not holding it against them. Most of Mogwai’s speaking interaction was done through Braithwaite, and it was also mostly “thank yous.” It’s wonderfully polite, and very strange for a band to be so grateful, especially one with their playing style and long history. The club was packed, near sold-out if not completely so, but a magic stillness settled on the audience for much of the performance. There was some head nodding and indeed head banging, but mostly there was listening.
They opened with “White Noise,” a song from their most recent and notably calmer LP, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will. Synths added a touch of further idyll on a surprisingly pleasant track (my surprise originates from years of listening to Happy Songs for Happy People and Come on Die Young) with tiny thoughtful riffs and the guitar equivalent of pulsing white light. The band opened its arms, played “White Noise” and welcomed us all in. Then, there was “Rano Pano.” Still playing from Hardcore, this felt more their signature, bassy and low and discordant, with satisfying guttural harmony. Renditions of breezy “Death Rays” and “Mexican Grand Prix” were bright and pleasant to listen to, but I was waiting for more.
Through a light stage fog, the lights shone down on the band in bright cones. There were two swiveling LED spots pointed out to the audience and up at the ceiling, creating an effect like a lighthouse. Pardon the metaphoric stretch, but on tracks like “Stanley Kubrick” (one of a half a dozen old classics played from albums like EP+6, Young Team, Come on Die Young and Mr. Beast ), it felt like a guide through the emotions evoked by the music. Really. And there were many feelings felt that night. So many feelings.
For instance, the softly weaving pirate melody in “Travel is Dangerous,” like all Mogwai songs, built slowly upon its own emotion. Splashy drums and brooding guitars added on gradually dragged in the tension on tenterhooks but the vocals from vocalist/guitarist/synth master John Cummings gave it a real humanity. Another layer on the already tragic-feeling instrumental, the vocal level was low and it floated behind guitar play. When it ended, it left me and surely others feeling a little cheated. I’ll explain.
Songs like “Travel,” like “Auto Rock,” “Hunted by a Freak” and “Mogwai Fear Satan” (the last two fan favorites reserved for the encore) are chilling on their own, but as some point out, have a great, indescribable depth. They somehow resonate with one’s entire experience up till now on this planet; for all achievements and failures, this is the soundtrack. On the whole, Mogwai did what they do best. With faces focused on each layer of the soundscape they created, they played. As I said before,
Braithwaite barely interrupted but to say “thank you” after most songs. Mogwai wrapped us all up in a great blanket of sound, and when these songs ended, it was a dream obscured by waking. We knew it would end from the beginning and we knew that feeling we felt, despite our best efforts to remember it, would never pass by us again.
Opening for Mogwai was an unusual sound project, Balam Acab. Sampling water sounds (dripping, splashing), heavily electronic noises and a saccharine sweet, processed vocal, his tracks were of a slower hollow kind. Ambient tone was highlighted by the vaguely female vocals, which were tuned up so high they could have been whale sounds, or that noise in the tense scenes of 1980’s slasher films. Electronic sounds (beeps, long sweet tones) and those childlike vocals faded in slowly and gently, the resulting sound a mix between a pile of feathers and a darker, trippier Alice in Wonderland soundtrack. Something was going all wrong, one noise at a time. In this same vein, the especially booming loud bass Balam Acab used drowned us in sound, and implied something more dangerous was happening, but the twinkling tones he sprinkled on top of these also felt fairy-sweet and safe; it wasn’t a happy, comfortable listen, like the cutesy tones he opened the show with might have implied (for this sound, think a cartoony, storybook style harp). Heavy reverb and cloying, high and hushed whispers were played in near-darkness, with the exception of two color-changing lanterns (the innards of which looked like a jet of water rising and falling) and projections of water, leaves, a skeleton and vaguely nature-y images crossfaded on top of one another. The 9:30 club was in a slow tumble down the rabbit hole.