Mogwai live at the Wilbur Theatre, May 1, 2009
The guttural rallying cry of an audience member on the other side of the mezzanine makes everyone laugh a bit, mostly because it peals out during one of Mogwai's gently arpeggiated intros. The Scottish "post"-rockers have long had a formula for their songs/pieces, and it starts with soft, sparse figures that take a few minutes to gather steam. (I suppose you can't blame the faithful for getting excited about what they know is coming, can you?)
Mogwai are, at this point, a musical spectacle on a par with going to see Laser Floyd at your local planetarium: they will be amazingly loud, there will be strobe lights, and your level of inebriation will be a factor in how interesting it seems. The band have been plying their mostly wordless musical wares since the mid '90s, developing and perfecting a curious blend of minimalist jamming and maximalist sonic melodrama. At the Wilbur, a mind-numbing peak is hit early, during the particularly punishing run-through of "Scotland's Shame," a number from last year's The Hawk Is Howling (Wall of Sound). After that, the spacy psychedelia and unintelligible vocoded vocals of "Hunted by a Freak" come off like a tranquil escape on an alien vessel.
The Mogwai live experience is nothing short of barrage; their recordings afford you the luxury of turning the stereo down, but live, the band are an unrelenting monster, frying synapses with an overload that seems untethered to any thematic or lyrical concept. There's no elaborate stage décor and no protruding personalities — the band members could probably wander amid the audience beforehand without being recognized. Each song at the Wilbur feels like a gantlet we must make our way through. Drudgery, aimlessness, and ennui are lumped into each piece in equal measure; then, at last, we reach the payoff, the grand view at the top of the climb. All the distortion pedals are hit at once, the strobes flare, and our collective sense of space and place gives way as the first tics of a seizure begin to flicker. Regular set closer "Batcat" is particularly mean-spirited, reaching an epiphany-like mantra of a riff at the halfway point and then just running it into our skulls until there's no telling pain from pleasure.
A brief respite ends when the band slouch back to the stage and unleash the kraken that is "My Father My King," a 20-minute deconstruction of a Yom Kippur prayer that undergoes several dynamic shifts until it hits an unknowably long stretch of shock and awe. Under the blast of strobes, the band members exit one at a time, leaving their rigs behind to squeal feedback. It's hard, at that point, not to imagine Mogwai sequestered in a back room of the Wilbur, protected from the unmanned mayhem still screaming from the stage, hoisting a drink and having a good laugh.
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