A man of my rapidly advancing years will, on his fourth consecutive night out (following on from, in order, Laura Veirs, football, stupid beer drinking), find himself feeling somewhat jaded. What better way of keeping awake than going to watch two of the finest purveyors of awfully loud Scottish post-indie-rock, Mogwai and The Twilight Sad? A more appropriate pairing of main act and support it would be harder to find; The Twilight Sad can safely be called “Mogwai Meets The Proclaimers”1, and have namechecked Mogwai in interviews and CD sleeves as not only a major influence, but as being friends, valued mentors, and general allround good buddies. Mogwai, in turn, seem to have been refreshed these last couple of years by having some younger bucks around.
After a frankly astonishing pizza at Franco Manca (the best pizza in London, fact and pizza fans), we wandered through the streets of Brixton to the Academy. I’ve fond memories of this place, with a personal gigging history going back 20 years (see? I don’t say “rapidly advancing years” as an idle threat). QOTSA, The Pixies reformation gig, the Elbow concert when we all – band included – realised this was the last time you’d easily be able to see them in a venue this size. Oh, happy memories.
Long-term readers of this blog – all one of them (including me) – will recall me seeing The Twilight Sad a couple of years back and being mightily impressed. As well as deafened. So I was as happy to come and see them as Mogwai; probably a little more. Would they pay back this confidence? Damn, yes.
Because on this second time of seeing them, I’ve decided that they are one of those bands you just have to see live. Not so much because the songs work better live than on record; they don’t, not really. What makes them special is singer James Graham. Now I have a pretty low tolerance for the woe-is-me frontman, or spoilt-kid histrionics, but James is the kind of singer you just have to watch. Whether he’s staring up at the roof, jittering around the stage Ian Curtis-style, or shouting passionately, if soundlessly, off-mic, you feel that you can’t take your eyes off him. What’s more, he’s clearly nervous as hell. On one between-song section, he tries thanking Mogwai for letting them tour together, and nearly cracks, muttering “Calm down, calm down”. About half the women in the sizable crowd go “Ahh, sweet!”. Bet he wasn’t expecting that.
The songs themselves have also been tightened up. Last time, the wall of sound was overpowering and ended up drowning the songs. This time, guitarist Andy McFarlane has toned back the noise (a bit) and thanks to this newfound delicacy, they shine through. And thanks to this, you could hear James’s singing more clearly, and even (shock horror!) pick up some words. It’s all about the words. Few bands in recent years have written such finely honed elegies to broken teenage years. Songs like “Last Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” nail that horrendous unloved feeling. Live, they are clearly some kind of catharsis for James, what with the yelling and all.
“I Became A Prostitute” (yeah, I know), swiftly followed by “Last Summer….” are noisy and hugely impressive, the former’s early Cocteaus churning, twisting guitar cutting through the squalls of sound, and the latter’s early explosion contrasting with the almost-gently sung lyrics. “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” starts with James singing solo until another explosion. This time, however, I was standing there thinking “Gosh, that guitar probably isn’t loud enough”. Bet that’s never happened at a Twilight Sad gig before. Closing with “And She Would Darken The Memory”, with its rabbit death lyrics, the band left the stage to a huge cheer. You can’t imagine that anyone here to see Mogwai could do anything other than love The Twilight Sad as well. Let’s hope so.
Mogwai released their first album in 1997. 1997! That’s pretty much a lifetime for some of the people here tonight. Accusations that they haven’t moved on much in those years fall wide of the mark when you listen to, say, Come On Die Young back to back with this year’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. They could be made by totally different bands. Sure, not quite as big a difference as Ok Computer to The King Of Limbs, but I know which record I’d rather listen to2. They’ve risen far above being the Scottish Slint that they were in the ‘90’s to something more interesting, and more listenable. They rely far less on that quiet quiet LOUD dynamic, focussing instead on Krautrock-influenced grooves and, you know, tunes. Now this has its drawbacks as well as its benefits live. An early airing of “San Pedro” is slower than on record and as a result, loses that irresistible impetus of the original. It just didn’t have that stunning brutality of a juggernaut driving off a cliff. “Rano Pano”, by contrast, was simply awesome. A single riff, repeated on three guitars, with varying levels of dirty fucked-up noise, looping through octaves to the climax, works so much better live that you wonder what happened in the studio to rob the song of its undoubted power. If you ever wanted to hear Black Sabbath covering Tortoise, it’s “Rano Pano” live.
Other tracks off Hardcore worked pretty well too. Opener “White Noise” built gradually, layer upon layer of texture slowly whilst the impressive visuals showed a vector-space sphere slowly coalescing before, inevitably drifting apart. I can imagine that was what Greg Egan’s dreams look like. “How to be a Werewolf”, a more gentle-than-usual Mogwai number, again used stunning visuals to give us something to look at (no offence, lads, but you’re not exactly visually enthralling); this time, a lovely video of James Bowthorpe3 cycling round fjords.
This whole music-as-movement metaphor struck me repeatedly throughout the set; how Mogwai’s music is near-perfect driving music, songs that drift into your head, gelling together your neurons as you speed through any given landscape. Like the video during “Friend Of The Night”, in which a camera seemed to fly through the architectural plans of an impossible building, Mogwai’s music propels you to places of rare beauty. “You’re Lionel Richie” featured a video of the traffic intersection off the cover of Hardcore, speeding up and slowing down as various dusk to dawn cycles passed over. Lovely.
Earlier songs come off well too; Young Team’s “Christmas Steps” made a welcome, bass-heavy appearance; as for the closing pair of “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Batcat” took anyone who thought Mogwai might be getting too melodic and threw them down the stairs, before picking them up, dusting them off, then giving them a kicking. Some lads next to me started a moshpit, before both a bouncer and Stuart Braithwaite himself came over to tell them to pack it in. Kids these days, eh? It was during the quiet middle section of “Mogwai Fear Satan” that the band turned to one another and started grinning, knowing the forces of hell (or rather, very, very loud guitars) were about to be unleashed. Lovely to see a band still enjoying their work after 14 long years.
But there’s a flaw to Mogwai’s music. Not a fatal flaw, as such, but after nearly two hours you start to miss the human connection that Twilight Sad are so good at building. That’s the difference between the two – the emotional touch. Even if you can’t hear largely what is being sung, you are left with no doubts that James is giving his all and probably using the stage as a theatre for catharsis. Mogwai, on the other hand, are lacking that bond. The music they make is frequently stunning, but doesn’t leave you feeling like you have seen something extraordinary.
When it comes down to it, the image that stuck with me on the ride home was of James Graham yelling at the distant ceiling. That, and traffic endlessly moving through a North American dusk. Both great bands, and great images, but I’d choose Twilight Sad over Mogwai any day. Still, both are great. Go see.
Oh, and a hello to the lovely teenagers who I’d last met at Godspeed. London really is a small place.
1 Wouldn’t say this to their faces though, as they’d probably kick my head in.
2 Contrarian Alert! Contrarian Alert!
3 Who cycled round the world, mad bastard that he is.
MP3: Cold Days From The Birdhouse by The Twilight Sad
MP3: San Pedro by Mogwai
Amazon’s Mogwai Store
Amazon’s Twilight Sad Store