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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 Last.fm 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.



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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)



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