I was first introduced to Mogwai when I was in high school. After hearing just one track off of its 2008 album, The Hawk Is Howling, I was obsessed. The band’s unique post-rock sound was different than anything I had heard before. So years, and dozens of band obsessions, later, I finally got to see the Scottish group for the first time last night at Webster Hall.
Opener Balam Acab was a good choice; his music has a similar “wash over you” quality to Mogwai’s. His sleepy synths were well orchestrated and got the crowd in a good state to hear Mogwai’s epic post-rock. Unfortunately, his tracks were not as all-consuming as they could have been. The bass was so loud that the melodies of many of the tracks were hardly audible. Also, the visuals were lacking. Grainy images projected behind him and two dinky little lights weren’t enough. For music that is supposed to wrap you up in a blanket of synths, a light show can take everything to the next level. The young producer was definitely likable though and seemed timid, leaving the stage with a very quiet, “Thanks, guys.” It was refreshing to see a visibly modest DJ, one without the bravado that comes with some electronic performances these days (ahem).
Mogwai kicked things off with the monolithic “White Noise” before barreling into fan (and personal) favorite “I’m Jim Morrison I’m Dead.” The band’s diverse set spanned its entire career and kept the audience shifting between dreamy swaying and slow but heavy head banging. While Mogwai focused on its most recent release, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, the band made sure to include hits like “Auto-Rock” and “Batcat.” Even though it kind of fits the group’s style, it was strange to see almost no movement at all on stage. Besides lead guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, who was rocking out more than the audience, no one in the band broke focus. All very skilled instrumentalists, the five players executed their work stoically, strongly and with precision. There were times when the wall of sound was deafening, but because of their smart instrumentation, it was always a nice kind of loud, the kind that is so beautiful that it almost seems quiet.
Mogwai’s music is more focused on setting a particular mood than on being catchy, and because of this, everything works better in a live setting. When the music is produced right in front of you, the calming moments are more enveloping, and the intense ones hit you harder and faster. Mogwai has often been questioned about why there are no lyrics to most of its songs, which confuses me: Why mess with vocals when the sound is already so good?