Mogwai played at the Showbox Sodo on Thursday,September 4, 2008. I arrived knowing that it wouldn't be the greatest Mogwai show I'd ever seen (see related article) but was excited nonetheless. As expected, band members were milling around the venue during Fuck Buttons' opening set. Guitarist John Cummings was doing sound for Fuck Buttons, Stuart Braithwaite watched the set from the back, drummer Martin Bulloch hung out with the merch dude and jack-of-all-trades Barry Burns did time between the sound booth and the bar. No sign of bassist Dominic Aitchison, but that was pretty normal too. The crowd was larger than I expected and as usual, the male to female ratio was exceptionally high. After a short setup time, suddenly there was a high pitched, butt-rock scream to introduce the band, which I found a little jarring.
Mogwai's new album, The Hawk is Howling, drops on September 23rd and it's gonna be good, y'all. The band opened with a new track, "The Precipice." It seemed like they hadn't entirely worked out the live version of this song yet, but it was still good: Characteristic buildup but with a low-key delivery. The peak was not as staggering as with other songs in their repertoire, yet didn't disappoint. The set continued with a mix of old songs and new, making good use of sonic, sweepy lines and hypnotic landscapes. The volume during "Ithica" was downright painful at times, driving many audience members to run for cover or buy thoughtfully provided ear plugs. I'm of the "If it's too loud, you're too old" school, so I endured the pain. Ha! I always love watching Stuart play this particular song, he plays so fast he almost falls backwards. No matter how many times I've seen Mogwai, I still marvel at how human beings can produce sounds like this.
The band's delivery of their new song, "Thank You Space Expert," was very much like a lullaby to me, very tonal with what sounded like a xylophone being played, or maybe a toy piano. The audience was lulled into a false ending, then suddenly the buildup began again. The heavy stuff never really took over though, the orchestral guitar and the childlike piano just kind of walked alongside each other, and created such a beautiful effect.
One of my all-time favorite Mogwai songs is "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong," so I knew just when the opening notes kicked in. However they played a variation I'd never heard before, the vocoded parts were lengthier, the organ was a lot more heavily featured. My first reaction was to wonder why they'd mess with perfection, but I read it on the bands face – they looked a little bored, almost as if they'd rather not be playing that particular song. "2 Rights" ended with a little experimental beatboxing by Barry, who did seem to be having fun with it, and the audience definitely appreciated the effort.
This was followed by an album-quality "Hunted By A Freak" and then the always amazing and beautiful "Mogwai Fear Satan." They immediately ripped into a huge, spherical sound and I wished we could have been outside for it to fill up the sky with the weeping and wailing guitars. I wanted to scream and cry and throw up all at the same time. I was transported back to the first Mogwai show I ever saw. After the first round of madness, they reduced the sound to a pounding drum and a single, echoing note. The crowd was totally silent in anticipation until they just couldn't take it anymore and started whooping and calling out for the payoff. Even still, I don't think most people were expecting the piercing onslaught that was soon unleashed. It was wild and pugilistic and perfectly played, bright white lights blinding us and then we were plunged into darkness again as the throbbing music brought us back down to earth. And the crowd went wi-i-i-ld. Whew! I think I cried a little.
This was followed by "Batcat," another new song that had me thinking of black metal and Metallica; it was all fuzzy and scream-y. After "Come On Die Young," Mogwai attempted to play another new track, "I'm Jim Morrison and I'm Dead" but had to stop mid-song due to technical difficulties. Stuart: "I think we've upset the local witch or something. We've had quite a lot of problems tonight. But I've had a good time though and hope you have as well."
Finally, I heard the unmistakable strains of my other favorite song, "New Paths To Helicon Pt 1." It was played nicely but the band continued to have a few problems here and there. It seemed a little, well… plucky. Notes that normally stream and keen seemed singular and solitary, and a little choppy. It was still enough to put me in a hypnotic zone and the climax of the song still raged through my body like an army. Technical difficulties continued on the last two songs and you could tell how frustrated the band was at that point. I was kind of hoping to see someone throw down their guitar in disgust, but I think those days are past.
The final song was "We're No Here" and it was almost too much, the bass and the lights and the intensity; I was in a full swoon at that point. And completely deaf. The band finished off with a thundrous and wonderful and painful flourish, to the shell-shocked crowd's appreciation and then it was over. My ears are still ringing.