Whether they're setting their amps on fire or humming softly, the members of Mogwai will make you listen, and listen good. Forcing the audience to take their medicine and, despite all things holy, getting them to like it, has defined the Scottish quintet's ten-year career. The music -- that unmanageable, unrelenting crescendo -- is the aural equivalent of a healthy dose of acupuncture or a good spinal readjustment. The members of Mogwai make it hurt so good, and they know it.
[more:]But these guys have convinced us of the benefits of their intensity long ago. Their new challenge -- as demonstrated by their performance in Baltimore on March 7 -- will be a bit tougher. With Mr. Beast, their just-released fifth LP, they now have as thick a catalog of shorter (if not quieter) tunes as they do mind-erasing epics. After years focusing on older songs pulled primarily from 1997's Mogwai Young Team and 1999's Come on Die Young, they've (rightly) decided to give their live audiences more of the new stuff. In so doing, they have defined the challenge for the next decade of their career: getting new and old fans alike to dig a sound that, while not necessarily quieter, doesn't rely on grand dynamic shifts and fifteen-minute cataclysms to get its point across.
Whatever happens, there will be a lot of folks to see the fireworks. Sonar's expansive bunker was nearly packed end to end, and other shows on Mogwai's new (and recently expanded) North American tour have been sold out. That solid show of support may be precisely what the band needs to translate its music into a new era. The Baltimore crowds responded in kind to the band's fiery opening, the classic "Mogwai Fear Satan," but the boys quickly veered into unfamiliar territory with "Acid Food," a Mr. Beast tune whose vocal nostalgia and country-tinged atmospherics felt faintly awkward after such a head rush. Curiously, the band members resisted the urge to return to their initial destruction, choosing instead to focus on newer material whose subtler, more compact statements became more and more compelling throughout the evening. "Hunted by a Freak" and "I Know You Are But What Am I?" both from 2003's Happy Songs for Happy People, were effortlessly moody, the latter a particularly inscrutable bit of existenz built around a Philip Glass piano hook and quick, violent jabs of feedback. "Stanley Kubrick," from 2001's EP+6, a lesser-known tune whose metered, quiet beauty anticipated Mogwai's recent recordings, was a particularly pleasant surprise.But, again, the real challenge was in the transitions. There were certainly times when momentum seemed to have been lost, but when the harder stuff came, even if it didn't build to a mighty crescendo, it felt right. "Glasgow Mega Snake," a new tune that goes for the kill with more speed and purpose than any in Mogwai's catalog, ended the night on a violently poignant note. And the encore -- a witty one-two punch consisting of the quiet melancholy of "Cody" and the impenetrable crunch of "We're No Here" -- boded well for a band newly committed to incorporating a broader palate on stage.If it's not the dedication of their fans, it's their own fuck-all gumption that will prove these Scots ultimately successful in the reinvention of their live show. Mogwai's presence on stage is as impressive as its volume. No one's pigeon-toed and hiding behind his instrument hoping you'll give a shit anyway. The five of them, alternately grinning and staring ominously over your heads, are above all things confident -- confident that whether they're aiming for quiet sentiment or the apocalypse, you'll be listening.