Anniversaries, jump scares, and onset tinnitus: Mogwai transfix the Albert Hall
By Alex Cooper
Mogwai are an incredibly hard band to pin down. The post-rock pioneers create some of the most elaborate and arresting music ever produced, yet, on the face of it, are four pretty normal guys from Glasgow. Barry Burns of the band even suggested they were like Louis Theroux to the music world; adjacent and observant.
Their down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude is remarkably undercut by their lengthy, and at times dense music, with songs regularly topping 10 minutes. This unusual sequence of factors, however, connects profoundly with audiences. Thursday night at a capacity Albert Hall was no exception.
Mogwai played a two night residency at the Manchester venue to celebrate its tenth anniversary after re-opening. The band themselves are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their debut album Mogwai Young Team, with a vinyl reissue released in the middle of the two dates. It’s a two-pronged cause for celebration.
Opening were American outfit Brainiac, with their first European show since the death of their former frontman Tim Taylor in the 1990s. The band had seen considerable success in the decade, opening up for bands such as Beck and The Breeders. 25 years on, it’s warming to see that the band want to return to their former project which was so sadly cut short. The music has an industrial quality to it, akin to artists such as Stereolab and the more upfront side of the Pixies, with crashing hard rock guitar lines like those from Queens of the Stone Age.
Songs were kept tight, but allowed room for experimentation from all the members, and the lack of a distinct frontman kept the set interesting. The vocals were hard to make out; perhaps stylistically, perhaps because of a less than favourable mix; or, perhaps both things were true. Overall, it was a very enjoyable 45-minute set and the return of Brainiac is very welcome.
When a fervent audience welcomed Mogwai to the stage at 9pm, it was lovely to see so many fans in the same room that have a relationship with this unusual kind of music. The band were understatedly dressed, all with cuffed jeans, viewable from the Albert Hall balcony alongside the spectacular light show.
“It’s four or five old guys from Glasgow playing the repeated melodies over and over again until the end of the show, and then everyone goes home”, Burns suggested in our interview with him. However, the beauty of Mogwai is that the relative sparseness of the songs allows you to construct your own meaning to these songs, which hold no traditional meaning. Opening with non-album single ‘Boltfor’, Mogwai sounded like a rocket ship about to take off.
The set was relentless in the best possible way. Celestial bodies of songs sprawled across the Albert Hall, only brought back down to earth by Stuart Braithwaite’s “thank yous” that humanly punctuated an experience like no other. Vocal features were welcome, with an early set highlight being 1999’s ‘Cody’, and ‘Richie Sacramento’, a single from their UK number one album As The Love Continues.
Mogwai are not looking for praise, or fame, or acclaim. They are simply brilliant at what they do, and they offer crowds an incredible escape for an evening. The set was perfectly paced; where bands performing this kind of music could slip into decadence with their lengthy songs, it never felt heavy going. Thoughts, memories, and reflections sat alongside the songs; in the ear-splitting loudness of tracks like ‘Don’t Believe the Fife’ and ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ (completely true), there was so much peace to be found. Maybe only peace for those who had earplugs, however, otherwise the stresses of onset tinnitus would override all engagement.
After main set closer ‘Ratts of the Capital’, an encore of pre-first album song ‘Summer’ met the crowd’s demands of more music. Afterwards, a familiar bassline emerged, and the beginning of Mogwai Young Team’s ‘Like Herod’ reared its head: the infamous jump scare in Mogwai’s set. I took out my earplugs for a moment to feel the full force of the moment. At the moment when it dropped, it did cross my mind that the building was over a century old, and this kind of practice can’t be good for its foundations.
‘Like Herod’ passed without incident, thankfully. Like a horror film, it was known what was coming, but we anticipated it anyway and allowed it to captivate us. It was on the more heart-warming end of the jump scare scale, like a younger sibling hiding behind a door rather than a genuine threat.
Mogwai’s beauty is in their curiosity. 25 years on from their debut album, they persist in offering up new ideas, new concepts, and new meaning. It all feels intentional, but never laden with complexity. The unconventionality of it all creates a safe, meditative space. Music is bigger than words, and wider than pictures. To celebrate ten years of a beautiful venue, you require a beautiful band. Both Albert Hall and Mogwai nailed it.
You can listen to Mogwai below: