Monday, March 21, 2011

Not-so-young team spirit


The Twilight Sad's last album was called Forget The Night Ahead - words which, with hindsight, might have been sage advice whispered in their ear as they stepped on stage.

The quintet are the latest in a long line of bands to enjoy the patronage of fellow Glaswegians Mogwai - Fuck Buttons, Dead Meadow, Bardo Pond, Sophia, Part Chimp forerunners Ligament, to name just a few - and for the most part struggle to justify their place in such illustrious company. The disjunction between that searing and deliciously bleak second record (which recalled turn-of-the-century Idlewild gazing intently shoewards but which is largely ignored in the setlist) and this scuzzy shambles, in which out-of-tune vocals collide with a stodgy mix, is almost as great as the huge disconnect between band and audience.

But then something happens - 'Cold Days From The Birdhouse' specifically, which shoves vocalist James Graham up front alone to lament "ruined plans" before exploding into life - and suddenly everything's different. The shy Graham, sheepish between songs and hitherto side-on to the crowd, is now gazing straight out, slowly fixing each of us with a stare while mouthing incantations rendered mysterious and unintelligible by the dense racket in which his bandmates are cloaking him. Unnerving and, ultimately, remarkable.

If Oxfordshire's own Radiohead have a rival for the title of the most influential band in Britain, it would be tonight's headliners. At around the same time as the White Stripes convinced a legion of aspiring musicians that bassists were superfluous, Mogwai were busy demonstrating the value of doing away with vocals. Why cripple your band with cliched caterwauling when you could just let the music speak for itself?

Hard to believe it's now fourteen years since they made their grand entrance with Young Team. In that time they've flirted with mainstream popularity, soundtracked countless documentaries and closed a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon set on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage with their 25-minute-long version of a Jewish hymn. As you do.

2008's The Hawk Is Howling underlined that Mogwai certainly hadn't lost their knack for naming songs ('I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead' and 'I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School', anyone?) - ironic, really, that instrumentalists should have such a way with words - but it did suggest a bunch of pioneers starting to fall into the trap of sleepwalking in their own footsteps.

This year's follow-up, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, contributes opener 'White Noise', and it's perhaps a mark of where they're now at. Whereas in the past a song with that title would have gleefully handed you your ears back in a box, now it's a sumptuous, piano-led comfort blanket. Not that that's a bad thing, as it happens. Unexpectedly, gentler tracks 'Auto Rock' and 'Hunted By A Freak' initially hit closer to the bullseye than the likes of 'Rano Pano', which doesn't prove that thrilling once each of the guitars has come in in turn, grinding on the others like rusty cogs in heavy machinery - a poor relation to older, more savage beasts like the unaired 'Ratts Of The Capital' or 'Glasgow Mega-Snake'.

But 'San Pedro' gives greater satisfaction and 'Helicon 1' is sublime, a moment of class more than sufficient to excuse Barry Burns' heinous knitwear. It's swiftly followed by Hardcore...'s epic climax, 'You're Lionel Richie' - a song named, or so I heard, after the only words a hungover Stuart Braithwaite could muster when he encountered the great man at an airport. Surely his opening gambit should have been "Hello, is it me you're looking for?"

Occasional violinist Luke Sutherland appears to perform vocals on arguably their most conventional song to date, 'Mexican Grand Prix', but it's blown away by an encore which features a towering 'Like Herod', the noise eruption still heart-stopping after all these years, and the viciously heavy-duty riffage of 'Batcat'.

The godfathers of post-rock might be growing old gracefully, but they're not doing it quietly.


Ian said...

I am so excited for their Toronto show (although last time we saw them it was with the Twilight Sad and they were fantastic for the duration), especially if they play "White Noise" and (please, god) "Helicon 1" when they get here.

I love the new record, but I have to admit that the Hawk is Howling is the only album they've ever made that I don't like.

Ben said...

Yes, while I'd take The Hawk Is Howling over most other bands' albums, it was rather pedestrian and didn't really engage me much ('Batcat' and a couple of others aside). The new album's definitely better, and 'White Noise' is superb live.

The Regal's the perfect venue for them - an art deco ballroom. Hope wherever they're playing in Toronto is well suited to them too! Enjoy...