cd: pias [PIASX051CD]
all tracks recorded bbc radio john peel or steve lamacq sessions.
mastering for this release was completed prior to the 'curiosa' tour (july 2004).
mastering for this release was completed prior to the 'curiosa' tour (july 2004).
you might say that all that you (and we) love about mogwai is perfectly encapsulated on this disc! the crushing squalls of distortion, the shimmery washes of dreamy ambience, the slow building epics, the tranquil shimmery barely-there pop often complely obliterated by a feroicous onslaught of thick distorted guitars and pounding drums, shoegaze meets metallic crunch meets slowcore meets minimal pop meets ferocious noise rock. the loudest louds, the quietest quiets. mogwai do their 'thing' (the thing that every post-slint post-rock band has tried to do for the last decade) better than anybody. for a while there, mogwai were the next big thing, and then they -were- the big thing, but then, for some reason, interest seemed to wane, and mogwai were just another band making pretty good records. but that has more to do with fickle indie rockers than the way things were. mogwai kept putting out amazing records, playing devastating live shows, and perfecting their gorgeously schizophrenic sound. so here's a kick in the pants, a reminder, a trip back to the first time you heard 'young team' and thought to yourself, "what the fuck" and then probably moments later thought "this is the greatest thing i have ever heard!". and you know what? it probably was. and listening to these bbc sessions we're tempted to think it just might still be.
if i had to name a particular moment from the past decade when i came the closest to musical transcendence, one of the first to come to mind would be the night of june 19, 2001, when i stood in the crowd at variety playhouse in atlanta and watched mogwai play "new paths to helicon pt i". stuart braithwaite and company barely seemed to move at all on the stage as the instrumental began with the windy whisper of keyboards joined by a subtly ominous bass line and suppressed cymbal percussion. the deceptively simple instrumental took several minutes to build up momentum and those of us in the audience could feel the change in the air, almost like the tingle at the back of one’s neck when one watches the pressure needle in a boiler room slowly inch past the red marks. finally, the sonic wave crest of guitar distortion struck and, as the stage lights brightened accordingly, loudness washed over us with an oceanic intensity that was somehow both fierce and serene.
on mogwai's latest release, government commissions, a collection of bbc recordings spanning from the scottish band's early phase in 1996 to the release of their most recent studio album, happy songs for happy people, the instrumental that blew me away back in the summer of 2001 can be found in all its live glory. the guitar blast hits at the four-minute mark on the track, but "new paths to helicon pt i" requires every second of those first four minutes to ensnare the listener.
for the uninitiated, the best way that i can describe the average mogwai track is to ask that you close your eyes and picture yourself on a flat plain, perhaps a wheat field or an uninhabited desert. you hear a rumble in the distance and open your eyes to see dark thunderclouds on the horizon. as the clouds move closer to you, the wind picks up slightly and you feel the coldness of the occasional raindrop on your skin. after several minutes, the clouds tower over you and you must stand guarded against the wind that blows with ever-increasing force. finally, one deafeningly loud thunderclap resounds and a torrent of rain comes down upon you. you pull the hood of your coat over your head against the destructive battering of wind and rain for minutes more. the rain slowly recedes and, when you look behind you at the black clouds that have just passed overhead, the rumbles of thunder continue until they fade back into silence.
the eighteen-minute version of "like herod" that marks the halfway point of government commissions is the longest thunderstorm on this collection, but even the tracks that don't make the five-minute mark leave a wake. each of these bbc recordings will interrupt your life and put you in a different place where you feel at the mercy of forces, both subtle and overt, that you won't wish to control.
some tracks leave more of a wake than others, of course. it's unfortunate that the two tracks, "kappa" and "cody", from mogwai's weakest album, come on die young, were recorded in lieu of far superior offerings in the band's catalogue. it's also a disappointment that the one representative track from mogwai's 2001 album, rock action, is the inferior "secret pint" instead of "sine wave", "you don’t know jesus", or even "2 rights make 1 wrong". i tend to favor mogwai's instrumentals over their weaker vocal tracks (the exceptions being "take me somewhere nice" from rock action or the tracks where the vocals are buried in distortion to the point that they are only instruments themselves) and my own "best-of-mogwai" mix cd would have never included "cody", the one mogwai track that sounds duplicated from "quiet intensity" bands like low or the red house painters. my final, and loudest, grievance is that this collection does not include anything from mogwai's 1999 masterpiece ep; there is no "stanley kubrick" or "burn girl prom queen".
blessings can be found, though, and government commissions includes a handful of unexpected rewards that more than make up for the shortcomings in the selection. the underrated "superheroes of bmx" from mogwai’s 4 satin ep shines here and, after one night of listening, i've decided that i like this particular live performance just as much as the studio incarnation. "r u still in 2 it" is as layered and emotionally gratifying as it is on young team. despite the elitist music critic claims that the instrumental "post-rock" genre had run its course by 2003, mogwai's happy songs for happy people from that year was one of their most beautiful efforts and it's a vindication of the band's continued validity that this bbc compilation begins with that album's first track, "hunted by a freak", and ends with the album's final track, "stop coming to my house". the recording of "new paths to helicon pt ii" is interesting in that it places more emphasis on the piano rather than on the bass line. it's one of the more rewarding moments on this collection.
the deal-closer, though, is the recording of "new paths to helicon pt i", the instrumental that marked the above-mentioned moment of musical transcendence for me and was the peak of the summer of 2001, a summer that ended with the once highly anticipated new cds from r.e.m., echo and the bunnymen, depeche mode, weezer, and radiohead sitting on my shelf like a child's forgotten toys while my stereo was dominated by the entire mogwai catalogue up to that point. put mogwai's government commissions into your stereo, play this ninth track, and brace yourself before the wave hits you at the four-minute mark.
dedicated to the memory of john peel, this collection of bbc recordings features eight tracks originally recorded by mogwai at maida vale for the legendary peel sessions (bolstered by two further additions) with the man himself even popping up to introduce the band on the album's opening track. representative of the kind of ethics peel held dear, mogwai are one of those bands which seem to effortlessly combine uncompromising, intellectually motivated intent with eminently listenable output that manages to be both blindingly raw and heart wrenchingly delicate all within the same song. opening with the quixotic and enigmatically arranged vocoder epic of 'hunted', mogwai consummately prove that having your music co-opted by advertisers (in this case the current filmfour trailer) doesn't mean it has to lose any of it's force or potency. the song which elevated mogwai to notoriety, 'like herod', is here as presented as a blistering, ferocious nineteen minute beowulf-saga and proves the quiet-loud-quiet-loud-quiet formulae with which they are often mocked does still have the ability to knock you clean out with both it's immutable rage and breathtaking simplicity. just awesome. elsewhere, 'new paths to helicon pt1' takes shimmering electronic daybreaks and tethers them to axe-wielding guitars and bass which prove mogwai are still several thousand streets ahead of all immitators while 'secret pint' takes the electronica tinged original and bolsters the mournful stings and death-beetle knocks to icy effect. absolutely killer music - buy without delay.
primarily taped for john peel, these raw versions of the scottish post-rockers' classics such as "cody" and "hunted by a freak" walk the perfect line between beauty and walls of epilepsy-inducing noise. if any guitar band tops the ambient genius of "new paths to helicon" or the 18-minute "like herod" this year, we'd be very surprised.
ten songs compiled from radio 1 sessions, hearing john peel introduce first song hunted like a freak from 2003 is unexpected and touching.
it sets a benchmark of emotion that mogwai usually live up to, with only a sterile helicon 1 and nervy secret pint not living up to the recorded versions. r u still in2 it? is creepy even by their standards, while the 18-minute like herod has more scope than most bands' whole careers. more than fills the gap before the next proper album.
fitting that this collection of mogwai's best live tunes should be introduced by john peel. not only was peel a longtime fan (8 of the 10 tracks come from his archives), he also understood the glaswegian guintet's hanging-by-a-thread genius is best served raw. inevitably, though, there's an unevenness to the improvised soundscaping. 'new paths to helicon pt. 1' is as perfect as newly-fallen snow, whilst 'kappa' and 'cody' are self-indulgent bobbins. but that's mogwai - when they're good they're very good, when they're bad they're horrid.
if you like i have spent far too many hours listening to the delicatly severe precision of braithwaite and co's orchestration, then i am sure we share the same abyss of sado-masochistic pain-pleasure in the passionate encapsulation of a sound of one collective, one noise, one single battle - mogwai. no-holds-barred noise entirely in touch with every single sensation there is to be felt but choosing a single passionate rage shown to mere mortals by sound. be happy because you won't be crying alone anymore and everyone's hearts will beat together, faster. this is, and will forever be, the most beautiful sound ever conjured by a collective of scots.
despite being infamous for reaching levels of volume that leave everyone within a five-mile radius bleeding liquid brain out of their ears, it's amazing how much time mogwai actually spend being deliberately quiet. indeed, in compiling these session tracks from the lamacq/peel archives, it's the controlled and beautifully melodic side that the glasgwegian post-rock heroes choose to accentuate and the result is as close to a 'best of' as you're likely to see for some time. the likes of 'kappa' and the truly magisterial 'hunted by a freak' are as impressive as the recorded versions but if all that intricate noodling gets too much, then skip straight to the towering, 20-minute version of 'like herod', which lays on the feedback and guitar noise in a way that will delight the world's hearing aid manufacturers. either way, this is an essential mogwai purchase.