The unlikely lads: Mogwai make the step up to arena rock
- David Pollock
- 18 December 2017
Live review of the indie rockers at Glasgow's Hydro
One of the unlikeliest developments of 2017 has to be the acceptance of Mogwai as a bona-fide arena rock band. They're not quite up there in Foo Fighters territory – while the floor at the Hydro was awash with people, there was a lot of free space up in the high seats – but there's something hugely inspiring about the story of this band up to this point. In the twentieth anniversary year of their first album release, they've slowly eked their way from wayward indie-rock outsiders playing scruffy Glasgow basements to a group with such a loyal and genuinely smitten audience that they can bring several thousand of them to one of the biggest music venues in the UK.
In the interim they've traversed the Barrowlands and more formal concert halls along the way, although it would have taken a week's residency at the Barras to match the crowd here. It's an achievement which has been earned by virtue of hard work, of regularly releasing music (this year's Every Country's Sun is the ninth studio album, to go with the five soundtracks they've been involved with) and touring internationally. Some say they've repeated themselves a lot in that time, but endless reinvention for its own sake is often not as satisfying as an artist finding their own voice and exploring it to the full over a lifetime.
Before they appeared onstage – and after support acts Ride and Sacred Paws had played – the band were introduced by one of their oldest collaborators in sometime Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat, doing his best, most sweary Bad Santa impersonation, red suit and all. We were invited to welcome 'a band very close to Santa's heart… named, after all, from the greatest Christmas film ever made. Until there's a post-rock prog band called Die Hard, of course.' The band looked suitably humble. They always look humble; just getting on with it, and letting guitarist Stuart Braithwaite offer his politest thanks after each song in his best 'thanking his mate's mum for cooking tea' voice.
It's an approach which seemed oddly out-of-place in these surroundings, although they would have looked silly changing it now. Where the real sense of showmanship appeared, however, was in the way their sound rose to match the space. Mogwai deserve a venue like this to fill with unrestrained volume, and from the grinding first few notes of 'Hunted By a Freak', this show was a mesmerising live soundtrack with no film to accompany it, only the effect it had upon our collective imaginations.
Mogwai don't have greatest hits, but what they do have – as demonstrated here – is a catalogue of unwavering quality and truthfulness to what they've always been as a band; a visceral and intuitive assault upon the emotions, with minimal vocal intrusion to get in the way. From the choppy, harrowing chords of 'Rano Pano' to the wintery, wind tunnel onslaught of 'New Paths to Helicon Pt.1' and the piano-led (by Barry Burns) delicacy of 'Friend of the Night', they included many of their best, with a particular hat-tip for that mighty moment – now known and expected by fans – where 'Mogwai Fear Satan' kicks in again at nerve-shredding volume.
There were also a number of tracks from the new album, each of which helped illustrate the group's increasing reliance on beautifully atmospheric synth interventions, including the hypnotic 'Coolverine' and the encore-starting, epic title track, while the group chose to end with the spiky, crystal clear guitar ridges of 'We're No Here', from 2006's Mr. Beast album. Amid an incredible lightshow, which was the only visual concession to the huge space they now find themselves occupying, it was nice to hear Braithwaite pass a dedication on to ill and absent drummer Martin Bulloch, who was somewhere in the crowd (Honeyblood's Cat Myers has deputised on this tour). This felt like a celebration for all of the band, and for everyone who has followed them over the past two decades.
See at Hydro, Glasgow, Sat 16 Dec.