The Great Hall, Cardiff University
Thursday, 16th February 2023
Over the last few years I’ve gone deeper down the road directed as ‘post-rock’, and even though Mogwai apparently don’t care for the term, the trails invariably lead to them. And there’s a good crowd out on a murky evening to enjoy them, whatever they are.
But first, support band Brainiac. New to me, but it seems that I should probably have heard of them as the Americans are newly returned after 25 years, having split upon the tragic death of former singer Tim Taylor in a car accident in 1997. Their debut album, Smack Bunny Baby in 1993, garnered the offer of a $2 million deal with Geffen Records – which they allegedly responded to with a resounding “Fuck off”, so they are certainly to be admired. They played Lollapalooza and high profile support slots, gaining a reputation as a quality live act and becoming a stated influence for the likes of The Mars Volta, Muse and Trent Reznor.
Having unexpectedly re-emerged last year, their second and third albums, Bonsai Superstar (1994) and Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, feature largely in tonight’s short set, with a couple of tracks from newly released EP The Predator Nominate.
There’s a certain Devo-esque quality to the songs – whilst sounding completely different – with odd effects and keyboard sounds, heavy use of electronics, somewhat grating vocals and associated voice changing tech. They have that persistent quality, akin to an uninvited wasp at a picnic where jam is in copious supply. I really wasn’t sure what to make of them for most of the set, but by the end I was starting to get the hang of it, and I’m sure that with a little bit more awareness and preparedness I’d enjoy them much more next time. Good to have seen them though.
Fresh New Eyes
Hot Metal Doberman’s
Hands of the Genius
Give Me a Myth
This Little Piggy
Vincent Come on Down
Come With Me
John Schmersal – Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Juan “Monostereo” Monasterio – Bass
Tyler Trent – Drums
Tim Krug – Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Bladder still suitably under control, I retained my place on the barrier stage left to wait for the main attraction.
At around 9, the lights dim and Mogwai stroll on to a tumultuous reception, taking their places as the crowd hush in anticipation. The striking and aching beauty of the band’s music comes through in the chiming atmospherics of opener Boltfor, but it is already loud and there’s some trepidation about where they’re going to take it from here. The piece lilts along in an engaging way – as best it can under the weight of the all-encompassing volume – with excellent use of lighting, as continues throughout the set. The three guitar frontline kick up a whirling wind-tunnel storm, and the drum sound is already noticeably excellent. This seems to be more of a thing these days; has somebody figured out a better way to mic up drums? I find myself thinking this much more often recently.
From my vantage near guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, I can see him ringing every ounce of emotive noise out of his instrument, but the sharpness of the sounds and feedback he creates is already cutting past my rammed in earplugs. I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead opens with a delicate piano melody picked out by Alex Mackay, but as the sound ramps up it reaches punishing levels. I’m not squeamish about these things but I have to listen to what my ears are telling me, and they really aren’t liking it.
A slight respite in the first of only a couple of vocal numbers tonight, Ritchie Sacramento, the first of three tracks from latest album As the Love Continues, the lo-fi elements of the sound making it even more heartbreakingly enticing. There’s an overarching and undefinable Scottishness to How to Be a Werewolf that gets swept up into the maelstrom, and Mogwai’s more electronic side comes through on Don’t Believe the Fife, while the inexorable plod of Drive the Nail spikes the intensity. The semi-delicate buffer of Killing All the Flies moves into restrained malevolence with I Know You Are But What Am I?, however the bright tinkliness of the studio version is lost in the angsty electronic buzz.
With the quiet bits merely loud and the loud bits REALLY LOUD, Summer provides jump-scares that could wake the dead. Even the pristine loveliness of the drum sound is lost in the hail of decibel bullets, and it is around this point that I let go of the barrier to reposition myself and nearly fall over, such is the disorientating nature of the wall of sound.
A sinister Remurdered pulls no punches and becomes almost unbearable as my plugs wave the white flag and turn to dust, Ceiling Granny gleefully putting another boot in from the wind-tunnel. The lengthy slow build of Like Herod explodes in grenade-like fashion for a flesh-ripping and cacophonous end to the main set, but my ears can take the brutalism of the front no longer, and as Braithwaite leaves his guitar feeding back as if its life depended on it atop his amp, I’m off to cower at the back of the hall – where it’s still bloody loud.
Mogwai eventually return to encore with 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong, still too loud despite its measured tones, with an excellent Ratts of the Capital doing its very best to rejuvenate me, but it’s too late for that as the damage has been done.
It’s a fine performance and a great set, covering pieces from right across their 25+ year career, but there’s a real problem here, and I don’t think it’s down to the well worn “too loud/too old” trope. I’ve seen loads of hellishly loud bands over the years, but the last time I experienced anything like tonight was 8 years ago. That gig, by the amazing Acid Mother’s Temple, is recorded on these pages, Here. It’s a cautionary tale and the main reason I embraced the necessity of earplugs; and I quote:
So many times recently I’ve seen/heard bands play with power and clarity without having to resort to ‘crank it up to 13’ volume levels. I don’t mind volume – it’s why I’m here! – but I’m not big on pain and I don’t want to sacrifice the rest of my listening life on the altar of one band, who would ironically sound better if they took the edge off the volume as it drives a coach and horses over the subtleties and dynamics of their achingly fabulous music.
It certainly appeared that ‘the Yoot’, as I believe they’re known, lapped it all up with a spoon, but I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have done. Oh well, one to chalk up to experience I guess, but it’ll make me think twice on seeing Mogwai again. If I wanted to be beaten over the head with a lead pipe I’d go to the dodgiest part of town and wave a wad of cash around.
The day after the night before, I sit here with ears buzzing like fridges and whistling like kettles and wonder whether it’s time to re-think attending shows like this. If I hope to have another c.25 years of leg-kicking life, do I want to have it unable to listen to any music at all? Nope.
Relistening to the songs from the setlist today, it should have been a transcendental show. It’s a shame, volume-for-the-sake-of-it should be a thing of the past, technology has seen to that. Or am I really just too old…?
I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
How to Be a Werewolf
Don’t Believe the Fife
Drive the Nail
Killing All the Flies
I Know You Are But What Am I?
2 Rights Make 1 Wrong
Ratts of the Capital
Stuart Braithwaite – Guitar, Vocals
Dominic Aitchison – Bass, Guitar, Keyboards
Martin Bulloch – Drums
Barry Burns – Guitar, Keyboards
Alex Mackay – Guitar, Keyboards, Bass