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Last Saturday night (7 Feb) saw the kick-off of my 2009 gig ‘season’ with Giant Sand‘s performance in the Paradiso‘s upstairs room. I’m not familiar with Howe Gelb‘s work, knowing more about him from association (the kudos of some of my favourite female performers in Scout Niblett, Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey, and the Giant Sand offshoots of Calexico and Friends Of Dean Martinez) than from his records – but his intuitive, virtuosic playing (on both guitar and piano) and personable good humour quickly won me over. Gelb’s ‘desert rock’ compositions are now fleshed-out by a trio of Danes (having married a Dane, Gelb splits his time between the Arizona desert and the more temperate climes of Aarhus), but the sound is still pure Americana, evoking not only the scrubby skree of the Sonoran Desert, but also Prohibition-era speakeasies, the red vinyl of diner booths, blood moons and lost highways. He wrenches some amazing sounds from his guitar, sometimes even to the obvious bemusement of his bandmates, and at times spews some squalling, corrosive riffs that Steve Albini would be proud to call his own.

In a tribute to Cramps frontman Lux Interior, who sadly died in the week, Gelb launches into a Duane Eddy-like surf-guitar riff, before reminiscing how Giant Sand opened for the Cramps in France on his first-ever European tour back in 1986. Gelb had smuggled two joints in the band of his Stetson, which were expropriated by Cramps drummer Nick Knox (although then graciously shared with their former owner), and the internationally-freighted weed, playing on European soil for the first time, in front of 3,000 people (up to that point having been used to audiences of around twenty people), and hanging with the Cramps (the Cramps!!) all made for an understandably unforgettable experience. Gelb, with his Richard Gere good looks, is in particularly good nick for his 52 years (he attributes this to the restorative powers of beer), something which is not lost on his female fans: after he educates us about the Galician saying “Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non” (the peppers of Padrón, some are hot and others not), someone upfront retorts “you’re hot!”, leaving him at a loss for words for the only time that evening. The gig closes with the band joined onstage by fellow desert-dweller Lonna Kelly, who’d played in support. The pregnant Kelly is the subject of some classic Gelb humour – joking about her waters breaking on stage: “it’ll be just like SeaWorld: only the front two rows will get wet”. Kelly has an amazing voice, although unfortunately it suffers from not being distinctive enough – at times a dead ringer for Cat Power/Chan Marshall, at others it’s the Icelandic elven-tones of Björk or Múm‘s Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir.

 dividing line

As this was my first live music experience of 2009 (not counting a visit earlier in the week to Amsterdam’s impressive Concertgebouw for a Wagner/Shostakovich ‘double-bill’), it caused me to reflect on the world-according-to-NarcoAgent best shows of 2008:

The year got off to a great start with an amazing performance by Vic Chesnutt, backed by various members of A Silver Mount Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Vic’s blackly humorous musings on mortality set the bar high, a height only reached again in late May with the powerhouse Primavera performance of Shellac (although Earth and other Primavera‘sters Six Organs Of Admittance, Om, Fuck Buttons, Kinski and Scout Niblett all came close). Seeing the classic “Locust Abortion Technician”/”Hairway To Steven”-era line-up of Buttholes Surfers was a special treat, despite the presence of “The Paul Green School Of Rock All Stars” threatening to drag the whole enterprise down into a farce unbecoming even of the Buttholes.  There had initially been uncertainty over whether Paul Leary would make the cross-Atlantic journey, but make it he did, and make my night he did, he being one of the best goddamned guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in action.

Mogwai in the atmospheric forest-enclosed amphitheatre of the Rivierenhof was a magical experience, but lacked a bit of the firepower I’ve come to expect from the Scottish Guitar Army. This was rectified two months later in the Melkweg where the volume was turned high and the jams were kicked out. Songs from “The Hawk Is Howling” made more of an impact this time round, particularly the mesmerising “Scotland’s Shame” and the triple-guitar-assault of  “Batcat” which closed the set in thunderous style. And they played “Christmas Steps”… ’nuff said. Setlist here.

Mogwai @ Melkweg, Amsterdam 30-10-2008

The last couple of months of the year didn’t disappoint – intimate shows by Nadja and Alexander Tucker highlighting the diverse possibilities of the electrified guitar, and Genius/GZA & Killah Priest duelling the iron mics for a run-through of “Liquid Swords”.

But it was the last-but-one gig of the year that also proved to be one of its best: the forged-in-the-pits-of-hell combination of Italian axe-wielders Ufomammut and Lento packed maximum riffs-per-square-inch in to the Deventer Burgerweeshuis. The youngsters of Lento (on their first outing beyond their homeland’s borders) mix dense riffing with stretches of melodic hardcore and ambience, sometimes sounding like an instrumental Isis.

Lento @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Despite the calm-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane ambient interludes, Lento had already damaged eardrums before the Ufomammut triumvirate took to the stage with their special brand of HEAVY, heady, heretical rock. That two-thirds of Ufomammut also comprise the Malleus art collective made for a captivating visual backdrop, all fire ‘n brimstone and psychedelic swirls, and the band played an awesome set of alternately hypnotic and crushing doom-metal.

Ufomammut @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Guitarist Poia gave a masterclass in controlled yet expansive riffing, showing that it’s not how many guitars you have in your arsenal but how you use ’em, and bandmates Vita (drums) and Urlo (bass, moog, vocals) ably supported him in creating the vast, hallucinatory doomsludge, at times swimming in Hell’s molten pits, at times in interstellar overdrive. The members of Lento joined their mentors onstage for the final two songs, playing “The Overload” and “Down” from their collaborative “Supernaturals Record One”. Two drummers, bass, moog and too many guitars to count achieved the impossible in being even heavier than what had gone before!

You can listen to the whole of Ufomammut’s 2008 album “Idolum” on here. The Ufomammut & Lento collaboration “Supernaturals Record One” can also be listened to here.
Ufomammut & Lento releases can be obtained directly from their label Supernatural Cat.


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow

Although this time last year I relented to the whole end-of-year list thing, through a combination of laziness and principle I’ve decided to retire from that and instead focus on more practical list-making (e.g. “Top 5 Ways To Thread The Shoelaces Of My Work Shoes” or “Top 10 Items I Discovered In My Stool This Morning”). This is not to say I don’t very much enjoy trawling the various End Of Year Best Ofs that populate the interwebosphere every January – they are a great source of new listening inspiration, and can be a useful nudge in finally going ahead and procuring that ‘buzz’ album that you’ve been meaning to check out but haven’t yet got around to (but no, that Bon Iver chappie is not for me). Particularly those lists that attempt to add a little bit of context as to why a particular recording is worthy of attention, as opposed to those un-annotated lists which I myself was guilty of. This is one I like, or this… (and for group-compiled, consensus-based lists you could do worse that check this one out).

But this does not mean I’m above trying to foist my questionable tastes on others…

Each year I make myself a “Best Of…” compilation, trying to encapsulate the best of that year’s listening (and live) experiences over the course of a couple of mastered CDs. And so in a rare act of magnanimous generosity, I’m making that compilation available here for your listening pleasure.

NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume I
NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume II

If you’d like an aurally-tangible run-through of the releases that caught my ear in 2008, right-click, ‘Save As’ and put ’em on the portable music player of your choice . Hopefully you make some enjoyable discoveries (or at the very least supress those sociopathic thoughts for an hour or two – it works for me!).

mixtape (detail) - sakura snow 

This first NarcoAgent ‘podcast’ also marks the launch of the Mixtapes page where I’ll occasionally upload other collections for your listening pleasure.
Tracklistings & associated info to be found there too.

mixtape (detail) - sakura snow

Mogwai have a nice line in great venues. They give their acolytes the opportunity to see them in the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, the back-to-roots basement-dive-vibe of the ICA, the faded seaside funpalace of Camber Sands, and most recently for me the open air stateliness (in SurroundSound!) of Somerset House. So it was to Antwerp for a long weekend that culminated in Mogwai playing the open-air amphitheatre (Openluchttheater) of the Rivierenhof, a large forested park to the east of the city.

Mogwai bring a particularly wet and windy August to a close by laying on arguably the best ‘summer’ weekend of the year – Antwerp weekend (priority version).
Unfortunately, after a couple of days spent sampling the Bourgondian multitude of Belgian beers in glorious sunshine, rain is forecast for the evening of Mogwai’s performance. However on arrival in the park that threat looks far off, and although the clouds gather with purpose, support act Motek play to a glorious sunset – the sky an apocalyptic orange over the tall trees that surround this superb venue. There’s booze, food and even blow-up cushions to aid our comfort, it’s just a shame that there is a Mogwai-inconducive sound-level restriction on the Openluchttheater’s PA.

As the band launch into opener “The Precipice” the first drops of rain are felt, prompting the better-prepared amongst us to scrabble for their micropacked ponchos. But Murphy’s Law is repealed after just a few minutes, and although a few more droplets fall during another new song – “Scotland’s Shame” – it is only during the tram ride back to town that the ground properly gets a soaking.

New songs are interspersed with highlights from Mogwai’s thirteen-year existence, and I’m particularly happy to hear ancient artifact “Ithica 27Φ9” played again, guitarist John Cummings and bassist Dominic Aitchison swapping instruments and the band concisely displaying their vice-like grasp of dynamics. They’re all obviously enjoying themselves a lot more than the night previous, a festival in Utrecht where they played in front of 500 Babyshambles fans – Stuart Braithwaite describes it as a “dispiriting experience” (anti-Babyshambles boo follows :)

During the guitar-and-lights assault of “Like Herod”, whose second half usually feels like the sudden arrival of a fierce storm, the wind picks up considerably, swirling through the dark looming trees that encircle us. New single “Batcat” follows, crunching guitars propelled along by the gusting wind, and is easily my favourite of the new songs that I hear for the first time tonight. Every Mogwai album needs its heavyweight anchor, and like “We’re No Here”, “Ratts Of The Capital”, “You Don’t Know Jesus”, and the heaven-and-hell “My Father, My King” before it, this for me is Mogwai at their best, when they wield their guitars as weapons and threaten to bring it all down around us.

As soon as we hit the eye-of-the-storm with “Helicon 2” and a cracked & fragile “Cody”, the wind dies away just as quickly as it had appeared…

The aforementioned mountain-mover “We’re No Here” is the last song of the night and ends in their customary feedback frenzy, the massed amps taking over from the restrained PA and giving us some proper Mogwai volume. John, always last to leave the stage (as the man charged with putting Part Chimp down on tape he must have armour-plated ears), is hailed with inflatable cushions – he ‘fights’ back, and then it’s over, and we’re in a dark forest at night. Into the trees…

The setlist can be found at the excellent brightlight! fansite here. And of course YouTube has some shaky handheld footage of a few of the songs…

Here is Mogwai in session for the Rob Da Bank show on BBC Radio 1 (18 August 2008), recorded live in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio:

Mogwai – Batcat (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead  (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – The Precipice (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan (Rob Da Bank session)

It has been too long since my last post, but finishing up a job whilst already starting another, and at the same time packing up to move country, has meant that time for anything else has been at a premium. Anyway, let me cast my mind back a few weeks to my last live music experience as a Londoner…

I’ve written about how Mogwai has been my most-seen band in a decade as a resident of this city, so it’s fitting that this crack battalion of the Scottish Guitar Army should see me out. The venue is the open-air grandeur of Somerset House, but with the summer-so-far having been crap even by English standards, there’s a fear that it’ll be a washout. Sure enough it rains all morning, but by midafternoon the clouds have parted and the weather holds… the gods obviously don’t hold Mogwai’s fear of Satan against them.

Mogwai live @ Somerset House (12-07-2007)

Mogwai open with the sequenced beats and soothing guitar & keyboard washes of “Superheroes Of BMX”, one of their earliest songs (released on the “4 Satin” EP in 1997) and a personal favourite. The sound is superb, particularly for an outdoor performance – it always is with Mogwai, and that is part of their enduring appeal: the dedication to quality that they seem to bring to everything that they do. Tonight’s show is billed as being “in Surround Sound” and sure enough there are speaker stacks suspended in the back corners of the Somerset House courtyard, the sound subtly mixed to take full advantage of this new development in live music ‘technology’.
The piano-led “Friend Of The Night” is appropriately followed by the mournful single-note piano line of “I Know You Are But What Am I?”, where Stuart Braithwaite downs guitar and spends the duration of the song on his knees manipulating his pedals, adding noise accents to the minimalist song. The band then click into rock action for “Ratts Of The Capital”, Barry Burns eventually leaving his banks of keyboards to pick up a bass guitar and give the song added low-end weight.

Mogwai live @ Somerset House (12-07-2007)

Despite the rifftasm of “Ratts…” this is proving to be one of the more restrained Mogwai performances I’ve witnessed, the pace slowed right back down for “7:25” (from the “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” soundtrack, and the one song of the evening which I haven’t seen performed live before). The remainder of the set satisfyingly covers the breadth of Mogwai’s back catalogue , highlights being “R U Still In To It?” where ex-Arab Strap-er Aidan Moffat joins the band on vocals (and where the song’s closing notes intermingle with the chimes from the Somerset House clocktower) and old favourite “Ex-Cowboy”.

The stage is flanked by two large screens, and the band is scrutinised by three cameras throughout, providing an intimate stage-eye view of the goings-on. It seems strangely voyueristic observing up close the emotion written across the faces of Barry and Stuart as they deliver their respective vocals (it is clear that singing to an audience of thousands is still an uncomfortable thing for them to do), but the skillfully-edited footage provides a great new element to the Mogwai live experience. It is also worth mentioning the lightshow (something that Mogwai take particular pride in, from the early “spend all our gig earnings on mirror balls” ethos to the awesome Mogwai Young Team ‘logo’ lighting rig they unveiled at the Royal Albert Hall last year) – as the skies darken it really comes into its own against the already illuminated late-18th century architecture of Somerset House, and judicious use of strobes adds to the impact.

Mogwai live @ Somerset House (12-07-2007)

The set ends with the “Mr Beast” double-punch of “Glasgow Mega-Snake” and “We’re No Here”, the band eventually leaving the stage one by one to leave John Cummings alone creating swirling squalls of feedback in classic Mogwai set-closer stylee. The baying crowd brings them back for a two-song encore of “Cody” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” – I’ve by now moved from the front to wander around the back of the courtyard and take in the full effect of the surround sound, which is particularly effective on the closing part of “2 Rights…” as the programmed beats envelop the entire space. Thank you Mogwai, thank you London. Adiós.

Mogwai live @ Somerset House (12-07-2007)

Setlist: Mogwai @ Somerset House (12 July 2007)
Superheroes Of BMX
Friend Of The Night
I Know You Are But What Am I?
Ratts Of The Capital
Hunted By A Freak
R U Still In 2 It?
Travel Is Dangerous
Stop Coming To My House
Small Children In The Background
Glasgow Mega-Snake
We’re No Here
2 Rights Make 1 Wrong

Here is “Travel Is Dangerous”, recorded live at BBC Maida Vale studios on 31 January 2006 and broadcast as a BBC OneMusic live session.

Mogwai – Travel Is Dangerous (live BBC OneMusic session)

This week marked the ten year anniversary of my arrival in London. I (young Master Dik) had arrived here from shores afar, accompanied by my faithful pussy, drawn by tales of streets paved with gold… (the streets, as it turns out, are strewn with discarded chewing gum, spat up lurgies, and other various rubbish & effluent).
Right, having achieved the onanistic feat of referencing Sonic Youth, Dick Whittington and the propensity for Londoners to treat the streets of their home as a massive garbage can, all in the same sentence, let me start again…

I arrived in London, fresh-faced and with a twinkle in my eye, drawn in part by this city’s (and this country’s) peerless modern music heritage. I experienced a palpable thrill at the sure knowledge that I would get to experience many of my favourite bands in the flesh, and so I have for ten great years (little did I know then that even some of those bands I thought I’d never get to see – Bauhaus, Pixies, Gang Of Four, Slint – would magnanimously reform for my benefit!)

So over the next few weeks I’ll be marking this anniversary with a self-indulgent reminiscence of a decade of eardrum damage and second-hand smoking, of life-affirming experiences in both sweaty, airless shoeboxes and majestic concert halls, of bank-balance-busting beer prices & limited edition tour-only recordings, of a myriad of merch stands resulting in way too many t-shirts, of gooseflesh and Godflesh

Rock Action!

The band that tops the “number of views” league table is Mogwai – I’ve been privileged to see them thirteen times (with #14 coming up in a couple of weeks, in “surround sound” at Somerset House), from the relatively intimate black box that is the ICA‘s performance space, to the stately grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, to the wide open space of Hyde Park. It’s fitting that Mogwai should take top spot – they are a fantastic, visceral live band, every single one of those thirteen performances never anything less than an exhilirating experience.

Mogwai @ ICA, 13 Jan 2006

For me, the Mogwai live experience is second only to that of Shellac (who incidentially take second spot in the aforementioned league table with ten, although admittedly not all London gigs with four of that number spread across two ATP festivals), the three-pronged guitar attack in turns elegiac and melt-your-face-off brutal. Although the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic of ‘post-rock’ has become formulaic, copied by a plethora of same-sounding bands, Mogwai are both the pioneers and reigning masters of it, and it is only in the live setting where one can properly experience the plunging valleys and towering mountains of their sound. They have the ability (as when they launch into the second part of “Like Herod”) to make the entire audience flinch in fright, and I’m sure countless venue owners have worried that Mogwai were in danger of tearing the walls down around them with their immense noise (I remember sitting upstairs at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for an April 2001 show where the swirling feedback at the end of the magnificent “My Father My King” felt as though it was going to take the roof right off!).

Mogwai @ ICA, 13 Jan 2006

Here is the metallic beast “We’re No Here”, taken from a live session recorded for the BBC OneMusic radio show (the successor to “The John Peel Show”) at BBC’s Maida Vale studios on 31 January 2006.

Mogwai – We’re No Here (live BBC OneMusic session)

Check out fansite bright light! for a comprehensive Mogwai ‘gigography‘. And The Runout Groove has a great collection of Mogwai Peel Sessions here, a companion piece to the “Government Commissions (BBC Sessions 1996-2003)” album.

Photos from Mogwai live at the ICA, 13 January 2006 Chart (weekly)

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