Show Review (Sonar, Baltimore)

    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.

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