Review and Photos – Mogwai at the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, Apr 18 2022
Touring in support of their UK chart-topping 2021 album, As The Love Continues, Scottish post-rockers Mogwai performed selections from their sprawling discography for a rapt audience at the Commodore Ballroom this past Monday.
Twenty-five years after the landmark release of their first album, Mogwai Young Team—the quite literal big-bang that one could argue birthed the entire genre of instrumental crescendo-rock—the Glaswegian combo sounded energized and in lively conversation with their history throughout a rich 90-minute set.
The band opened with “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth”, the graceful, gliding opener from their latest record. Bandleader Stuart Braithwaite’s crystalline guitar notes danced around multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns and touring member Alex Mackay’s dual keyboards over a coronary lub-dub of a beat, before finally giving way to the song’s triumphantly distorted central melody. The influence of Mogwai’s prolific soundtrack work over the years was especially felt here. A simple melodic idea allowed just enough time and iteration to flourish before moving on—a far cry from the 10+ minute feedback explorations of their early career. Thankfully, that aspect of their sound would be explored later in the set.
“Friend of the Night” from 2006 fan-favourite, Mr Beast, followed. This is where I first noticed how incredible Martin Bulloch’s drums sounded reverberating through the Commodore, accentuating every tick of the song’s memorable, clock-like 3/4 melody.
What came after was an exploration of Mogwai’s many modes and moods, culling tracks from nearly all 10 of their studio albums. An easy highlight was the inclusion of “Take Me Somewhere Nice” from 2001’s Rock Action, a song that saw the group return to a particular strain of early 90s slowcore that they’ve long-since abandoned. Elegiac, measured, and carried by Braithwaite’s minimal vocals, it was a welcome reprieve from the bombast of the rest of the set, favouring a quiet melancholy, evocative of 90s bands like Bedhead, Slint and Duster.
Elsewhere, the Scots delivered a riveting performance of the propulsive, krautrock hommage “How to Be a Werewolf”, capped off by a delightfully off-keel guitar solo from Braithwaite that recalled Robert Fripp’s liquid 6-string heroics on Brian Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
True to their music, Mogwai were quite light on between song banter, barring Braithwaite offering his earnest thanks to the crowd after every song. The audience was respectful and attentive throughout, punctuating every performance with rapturous cheers.
The evening’s few fumbles could be found in the handful of instrumental mid-tempo rock songs that padded out the second half of the set. New track “Ceiling Granny,” despite an incredible title, felt like an unfinished Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins track that never found its hook, while “Old Poisons”‘ gnarled triple guitar harmonies were impressive, if slippery and unmemorable.
Here, you can practically hear a pin drop. And then it happens, a final cataclysmic eruption of guitar noise. Eyes closed, I feel my clothing vibrating millimetres off of my body.
Fittingly, the evening ended where the band began, with a performance of “Mogwai Fear Satan”, the seminal 16-minute rager that appeared on the band’s first record and defined much of their early career, not to mention post-rock as a genre. All these years later, the song is still transformative when played live. An ascending-three note riff repeats into oblivion, gaining new textures as arcing plumes of corrosive distortion keep getting piled on, reaching new heights of volume and heaviness. Bassist Dominic Aitchison’s tectonic chord changes keep the whole thing grounded until a mid-song lull sees the band suddenly competing to see who can play the quietest. Here, you can practically hear a pin drop. And then it happens, a final cataclysmic eruption of guitar noise. Eyes closed, I feel my clothing vibrating millimetres off of my body. In that moment, it feels like the continents are folding in on themselves, collapsing into a singular point in the Scottish Highlands. Nothing exists but beautiful, blissful noise. Somehow at the end of it all, there’s applause.
That Mogwai can still conjure these feelings 25 years into a career is no small feat. They are, and have always been a tremendously vital live band. Make sure you catch them on one of their remaining West Coast dates, or on their upcoming European tour.