After multiple delays, cancellations, venue changes and visa issues, post-rock mainstays Mogwai finally made their way to Boston Saturday night in support of last year’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Balam Acab opened.
‘Loud’ seems to be the primary adjective associated with Mogwai. They join the ranks of noisemakers like My Bloody Valentine and Swans in the music geek folklore of high volume, supposedly playing loud enough to overdraw and blow out the power sources of lesser sized venues. Motivation, perhaps, for the relocation of this show from the relatively tiny Paradise to the much larger House of Blues? We’ll never know. Regardless of venue size though, Mogwai’s live sound is massive. Drums and bass notes rumble the floor like an earthquake and guitars (as many as three at a time) snarl with a bite that’s almost physical. But to reduce Mogwai to an experiment in bludgeoning levels of sound would be shortsighted. The band are masters of making the quiet moments between their soaring crescendos count too.
Opener Balam Acab, aka Alec Koone, also sought to master quiet moments throughout his forty-five minute set of downtempo electronic tracks. Projections of hazy nature images and a set of hypnotic motion lamps lit the stage as Koone manipulated beats, synths and vocal samples into ethereally pretty compositions. In a tiny club late at night, Koone’s show could be transcendent. During early evening in a room so large as the House of Blues, it started to wear a bit then by the end. Balam Acab is an intriguing project under the right circumstances, but somewhat ill-suited to this particular show.
Another half hour and Mogwai would finally take the stage, kicking off a show originally scheduled to take place last April on the other side of town. In what little stage banter there was, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite apologized and admitted embarrassment for all the delays. An audience of visibly excited fans didn’t seem to hold a grudge. The show opened with “White Noise” from 2011′s aforementioned (and fantastically titled) Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. The record isn’t exactly weak, but it’s surely among the band’s least remarkable. In a live setting though, these new songs hold their own. The kraut-drive (if you’ll forgive the pun) of “Mexican Grand Prix” and the viciously distorted riffing of “Rano Pano” kicked especially hard. Other show highlights included a towering “Ratts of the Capital” from 2003′s Happy Songs For Happy People and a showstopping, breathtaking “Mogwai Fear Satan.” The latter was the sole track from the band’s first and best record Young Team, and remains today the astounding spectacle it has always been. It showcases most effectively the band’s mastery of sonic tension and dynamics shifts, nearly tearing a hole in the atmosphere as it leaps from an almost inaudible moment to a gigantic wall of sound in the blink of an eye. It is everything which makes Mogwai brilliant distilled into a single composition, whose cathartic power is magnified in live performance.
Last night’s show would indicate that Mogwai isn’t a band anyone would accuse of having much of a stage presence. Then again, post-rock has never been about stage presence anyway. Band members don’t gather in a circle facing away from the audience in the style of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but they largely seem lost in their own worlds while performing. Even if Mogwai have more of a sense of humor than many of their post-rock contemporaries (judging by their smartass song and album titles, at least), smiles from anyone other than Braithwaite were flashed only upon leaving the stage. Mogwai’s show is not a visual or social one. During moments of particular resonance I found myself closing my eyes and getting lost in the beautiful cacophony, which seems the intended effect. Seventeen years on, Mogwai have mastered the art of engaging their audience with peaks and valleys of sound. The lows are tense and beautiful, and the highs pack a punch like little else.