Into the Pit: 184: Mogwai – Live at Royal Festival Hall – 25-Jan 2014

Every year I seem to be starting my live gig attendance that little bit later. Last year I began with easily the best show of 2013 in mid-January, with a trip to Germany to see Kraftwerk, and this year we are into the last week of January before I attend a show. And this time, it wasn't to see bands I'd not seen before, it was to see two bands that I'd not seen in a long, long time.

And I mean a long time. I did realise before heading out, though, that seeing Mogwai last night means that I've seen them in three different decades (I'd previously seen them in 1997, and 2001), while I last saw Clinic before even the release of their first album, back in 1998 (supporting Placebo at Brixton, as I recall). Time flies, eh?

I was actually quite excited about revisiting Clinic – I must confess to them having fallen off my radar somewhat – to see what I'd missed in the interim, since that initial flush of promise from the band (their debut album Internal Wrangler, when it arrived, was lauded in many quarters). First impressions were good, and it was also nice to see that their infamous stage outfits of surgeon's scrubs (complete with masks) were present and correct, too.

Clinic setlist

Internal Wrangler
King Kong
I.P.C. Subeditors Dictate Our Youth
The Return of Evil Bill
Miss You
Lion Tamer
The Second Line
See Saw

What I had kinda forgotten about was how taut the band were. Their core sound is a jarring, angular post-punk/garage rock one, I guess, but with smart lyrics, a fair smattering of gallows humour (how many other bands – with the potential to be feted by the NME – would dare to release a debut single entitled I.P.C. Subeditors Dictate Our Youth?) and crucially a sense of groove that means that I got right back into them straight off.

OK, so it certainly helped that that debut single was played, as well as a few more of their early songs, but the newer material was just as enthralling and as the band switched instruments for the umpteenth time, and the swirling synths of Seesaw faded into silence, I was sad to see them end so soon. Clearly I've missed out on quite a bit since 1998.

Mogwai are one of those bands that perhaps were never quite expected to last this long. Remarkably next year they will mark twenty years as an active band, and over that time have evolved from being (exceptionally) angry young men lumped into a nascent "scene" (post-rock) with a great line in snarky interviews and picking verbal fights, to being hugely respected musicians who have increasingly moved into amazingly affecting soundtrack work and just maybe, a slightly more mellowed middle age.

Mogwai setlist

Heard About You Last Night
Travel Is Dangerous
How to Be a Werewolf
May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door
Blues Hour
Hunted by a Freak
You Don't Know Jesus
Master Card
Auto Rock
Mogwai Fear Satan

The Lord Is Out of Control
New Paths to Helicon Part 1
We're No Here

Mellowed? Well, it has to be said that after the creepy, dread-filled brilliance of the soundtrack for Les Revenants, new album Rave Tapes definitely has it's eye on restraint, with little of the titantic guitar riffs of old and perhaps a little more of the electronic side of things than before. So, I came to this gig a tiny bit apprehensively. Were we going to get any of the power of old?

The answer was yes, but they made us wait a bit. Actually, that's unfair – they built up to it, like a locomotive building a head of steam. The band may have evolved a lot over the years, twisting their sound somewhat to rely less on quietREALLYFUCKINGLOUD and more on texture, but there were quite brilliant moments of both. The latter in particular was showcased by the gorgeous melancholy of May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door, a wistful wish to someone else whose sunny title disguises a melody that is anything but, while Hunted By A Freak was made really quite chilling by the processed vocals that remain out of focus and all-but-unintelligable for the whole track.

On the flipside, the driving surge of How to Be a Werewolf, almost motorik in feel, that just kept on building without ever really exploding – but it was still bloody loud. You Don't Know Jesus chimed and pulsed, and again showed epic restraint in never pushing further beyond that.

Remurdered saw that Krautrock influence finally take centre stage, with droning, buzzing guitars, repeating synth motifs and rhythms that keep propelling forward, and I have to say that the song made so much more sense live, rather than as the bizarre, electro-drenched first taster of Rave Tapes that it was. It was more than a bit of a red-herring, really, in that sense – perhaps deliberately released this way by the band to deflect expectation a bit – as much of the rest of the album adheres to more expected Mogwai formulae nowadays, of mellow(er) waves of guitars and mood-music…which admittedly is certainly not bad, but some of it sounds awfully familiar.

Talking of awfully familiar, Remurdered didn't finish as much as gradually morph into an unmistakable guitar sound, as Stuart Braithwaite began to tease out the opening notes of Mogwai Fear Satan to close the set, to the delight of the whole crowd. As I've seen them do before, it was a bit of a truncated version of this epic track, but no matter, it was still awesome. The initial build and storm was weathered, before the calm of the midsection was teased out for longer than I was expecting, and even though it was telegraphed, the way they absolutely ripped into the final climax – putting the volume off the scale and making much of the crowd wince just that little bit – was a moment of utter joy, and a reminder of Mogwai's fearsome power if they put their mind to it. Indeed, by showing so much restraint generally over the evening, perhaps this just hit that bit harder as a result.

Our ears still ringing from the epic assault before, the band did return for an encore of the new…and the very old: perhaps the biggest surprise of the night – for me, anyway – was to hear the gloriously ominous tones and guitar textures of Helicon 1 to ring out for a few wonderful minutes, before a final, very noisy indeed flourish through We're No Here, with riff upon riff upon riff dragged through the murk, before the band leave the stage with feedback still screaming from the guitars. It's still ringing as we leave the venue.

Eight albums, a few compilations, various soundtracks and other odds and ends over nineteen years, and remarkably the band still sound like they are hungry for more, and ready to damage a few more eardrums in the process. Who knew?

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