By ANDY SCHNEIDER
Friday, April 18, 2014
The Regency Ballroom
Better than: Whatever use you had in mind for those frequencies your hearing just lost.
"For the record, we are not Neo-Nazis"
The thought was far from our minds when one of the most personable, disarming bands in music performed at the Regency Ballroom on Friday. But the accent of Mogwai's lead distortionist and occasional singer Stuart Braithwaite can be just as impenetrable as it is charming. And given his own shiny scalp, what was most likely a very innocent question about understanding local skinhead fashion taught a valuable lesson in what subjects to avoid with a drunken San Francisco audience. (Also, perhaps band that claims to be ideal for listening while wasted should not ask about fascism an hour into the show.) And if you don't believe Braithwaite , feel free to look Mogwai's charitable, local-library supporting, Nazi-free career yourself.
The band has succeeded at taming and furthering the already highly affecting post-rock format (the categorical confines of which it has publicly rejected), without sounding homogenous. Indeed, certain tropes that make the genre so epically moving can also label it as a one-tonic pony. Start with a simple melody, build relentlessly until it crescendos into an all-encompassing apocalyptic wall of sound, and dial it back down to a shoegazing pianissimo. It's a proven recipe that also makes for a visceral, enrapturing live experience.
While Mogwai is both masterful at this recipe and arguably responsible for popularizing it, the band's last few albums have shown it capable of much more than crescendogazing. Rave Tapes, the most recent full length on Sub Pop, breaks down pretty much every such wall, and instead offers 10 catchy, occasionally dancey numbers -- only two of which break the six-minute mark. That direction, and the threat it posed to a five-show tradition of sacrificial hearing loss, made me a bit nervous about what Friday's live result would be. Hearing Mogwai's devastatingly gorgeous melodic interplay and structural plotlines amplified to 120 dB can be a truly transcendental experience, bringing with it some very high expectations.
Only adding to the suspense was Pittsburg one-man opening act Majeure, whose command center of analog and laptop-controlled equipment cast a symphony of tense, high-energy four-on-the-floor jams, complete with howling synth solos and a sinister electro vibe somewhere between Com Truise and Tangerine Dream. It may have been the perfect edge-of-my-seat prelude, and not too unusual given Mogwai's penchant for experimental electronica openers. After Majeure's exit, we waited anxiously for our experience to begin, as if in the lobby for a collective Total Recall-like trip, unsure of where and how far we were going.
As it turns out, pretty damn far. The whimsical Rhodes piano of Rave Tapes' "Heard About You Last Night" gently eased us into 90 minutes of music from across Mogwai's discography, with lots of emphasis on the latest. A thoughtful storyline worked its way from semi-vocal ballads like "Blue Hour" to "Hunted by a Freak" and other angsty favorites. That the band didn't take any major liberties taken from its studio versions wasn't an issue, as the verse/chorus/goosebump structure of tracks like "Friend of the Night" shows that this music is as much engineered melodic invention as it is emotional expression.
If anything was lacking for this fanboy and his unreasonably high expectations, it was that the five-piece's relatively reserved and recital-like stage presence didn't feel physically and visually in harmony with the cinematic proportions of Mogwai's music. Not to say that I expected hammy choreography, but with such an emotionally wrought soundtrack, the performance seemed to be missing some complementary onstage drama.
That was, up until the always-satisfying "Mogwai Fear Satan," the set-closing highlight of the night. Perhaps it was the chorus line of screaming electric guitars, strumming in unison and pressurizing the Regency Ballroom to its seismic limits, but something shifted in the band's energy and my response to it. With renewed vigor and drama, Mogwai then unleashed an encore of raucous anthems from earlier releases, leading to a closing set that justified the entire night and left me and my ears buzzing with joy. Even if Mogwai has toned down the volume with its latest album, it's still one of the finest examples of why you don't always need a vocalist to have a resonating voice.
Mental/actual notes: "I really hope obnoxious bro squad next to me passes out before Mogwai comes on"
"Bro squad knows of every piano/guitar note and timing change of every song. I will never presume again"
Heard About You Last Night
Friend of the Night
Hunted by a Freak
I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead
Mexican Grand Prix
How to Be a Werewolf
Mogwai Fear Satan