Every once in a while someone asks when I became interested in music. I remember responding to much of the darker synth-based post-punk preferred by my friends' older sisters, and I definitely had an early awareness of lyrics and musical tension, as many teenagers do. Mostly, though, I can trace it back to a time when I wasn't listening to much of anything besides what played on the radio. A musician friend suggested five albums I should pay attention to, ones he believed would wake me up to some feelings I'd never had about music. Mogwai's Happy Songs for Sad People was among his suggestions, and it changed my listening habits in ways I never could have imagined.
Mogwai is one of those bands that changed music for a lot of people.
The first notes of "Hunted by a Freak" crept into my ears and under my skin, atmospheric, gloomy, and completely saturated. I didn't so much listen to the album as much as I experienced it; music that surrounded, grabbed me by the hair and smashed my face through the wall into another dimension like nothing had before. Their music has stayed with me through the years but I've only had the opportunity to see them once - a part of their 2012 Bonnaroo set. Surrounded by a whirlwind of overexposure to music, Mogwai cut through with incredible clarity and of course, sheer volume. The impression they left was as strong as the first time I heard them, perhaps even stronger. Mogwai is the kind of band you absolutely have to see live to understand their full impact; shimmering waves of sound exploding in a way that can never be experienced with headphones.
Wednesday's set started with the five Scottish men taking their place stoically against a background of softly glowing hexagons, pulled from the cover of this year's new release, Rave Tapes. Fittingly the set opened with the lead track off the album, "Heard About You Last Night," a menacing creeper filled with the slow burn of textural guitars. Before launching into the next song, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite punctuated the pause with a simple "cheers, thank you," which he'd repeat often through the night.
The set was expectedly heavy off the new album, plucking some favorites from the release: the Tron-like Kraftwerk synth of "Remurdered," and the guitar-heavy "Master Card." Though they played nothing off last year's delicately crafted Les Revenants, the soundtrack to the French TV show, they did show off sweeping cinematic scorability with Rave Tapes' "Deesh," which could easily fall into place on instrumental soundtracks with its sparkly guitars and dramatic cymbal crashes.
The set had a great balance of favorites, tempering sprawling atmospherics with the catchy melodics of "How to Be a Werewolf," the distorted repetition of "Rano Pano," and digging back into the discography with "Ex-Cowboy" from Come on Die Young. A personal highlight was hearing "New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1" again, the waves of reverb building to explosive distortion that made such an impression on me when I first saw the band lost no affection from me this time around. The feeling seemed shared by many in the crowd, with huge smiles on faces and eyes staring, glassy and entranced, at the rays of blue light spilling out from behind the musicians.
Returning for the encore, Braithwaite mentioned they don't usually do requests, "but this guy gave us a note." Somebody please give "this guy" a handshake, because they blasted into the song that introduced me to Mogwai so long ago, "Hunted By A Freak." I'd never had the opportunity to dissect the song live, and was struck by the layers created with Barry Burns' heavily processed vocals, synth, and the effects on Luke Sutherland's violin. The slowly building intensity of "Auto Rock" followed, then metal heavy show-closer "Batcat."
Only Mogwai would end an instrumental show by blasting the crowd's faces off in pure Black Sabbath style before sending sending us stumbling into the night, deaf and shouting at each other.
Days later, my ears are still ringing and my heart is still full.
Heard About You Last Night
How to Be a Werewolf
The Lord is Out of Control
Mexican Grand Prix
New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1
We're No Here
Hunted By A Freak