Live: Mogwai at the Wiltern: Ultima Terminus

Mogwai
Mogwai

by Casey Dolan

Last night, Los Angeles’ art deco masterpiece, the Wiltern Theatre, was in danger of being shaken to its foundations. Mogwai was visiting.

The first thing anyone should know about the Scottish quintet Mogwai, particularly if they are to attend a Mogwai concert in the future, is that they are louder than God. Or perhaps they are as loud as God’s ending of the world — Ragnarok, the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations, the sounds of the kraken transcribed by James Joyce in “Finnegans Wake,” or the techtonic shifting of continents. You get the idea? THAT loud.

That’s intentional, of course. Like Glenn Branca or, notoriously, The Swans before them, part of the cathartic impact of the music is due to the extreme decibel level. It is difficult to be unmoved, by any definition, when confronted with such sound. Of course, three guitars pumped through Marshalls, aided by plenty of overdrive pedals, can lead to permanent tinnitus for anyone standing in front of the PA horns.

But this is not a band without dynamics or compositional abilities and the sheer cinematic nature of their music has been seized upon by such filmmakers as Michael Mann and Darren Aronofsky for use in scores for such films respectively as “Miami Vice” and “The Fountain.”

Mogwai may be good material for films, but what many don’t realize is how profoundly Scottish the band truly is. The measured pace, often at an extremely slow tempo, coupled with sad pentatonic melodies can be likened to a piper’s pibroch, the classic lament. And then there is the grimness: the 18th-century dripping granite slabs of Glasgow (captured so well by 19th-century photographer, Thomas Annan) and hellfire sermons of Calvinist preachers. There is also an over-the-top mordancy — “Trainspotting” comes to mind — and Mogwai have no hesitation in taking the piss whenever and to whomever (have a look at the tour diary on their website).

Combine the musically traditional elements with the repetitive ostinatos of minimalism, the tearing at your heart of Sigur Ros (Mogwai eschews the comparison), and the volume of a Pantera (or, better yet, Neil Young at the L.A. Forum, 1996) and the limited sonic palette, which initially distracts, takes on deeper meaning and layers.

Keyboardist/guitarist Barry Burns plays simple church chording that establishes a foundation for most of the instrumental compositions and drummer Martin Bulloch knows how to hold down a slow tempo. The tendency for a drummer playing this kind of music would be to rush and bash, but Bulloch does neither. He is steady and subtle, allowing the guitar army to have their say…which, ultimately, they must because they will not be denied.

Bassist Dominic Aitchison carries much of the melodic content while Stuart Braithwaite, John Cummings and Barry Burns (when he isn’t playing keyboards) arpeggiate and interlock contrapuntal lines. Braithwaite is easily the most engaged performer on stage, throwing his diminutive muscular body into every pick and strum of his Les Paul. The music agonized, threatened and, occasionally, even soothed. Moments of boredom would intercede only to be disturbed by some cataclysmic musical event.

Last night’s set covered notable tracks from the band’s six albums, including the upcoming “The Hawk is Howling” (to be released Sept. 23), but the evening ended with “We’re No Here,” as ultima terminus a composition as could be imagined. The last track on 2006’s “Mr. Beast,” it conjures up overwhelming despair, with each member of the band departing the stage, like the ghosts the word “mogwai” translates into English from the Cantonese, until Braithwaite is left, scrambling like a monkey among pedals, turning knobs to ensure the greatest amount of feedback and noise for the transfixed crowd.

The opening duo, the Fuck Buttons, demonstrated a dearth of imagination for electronic dance music. Repetition was carried to an deafening extreme, perhaps as an open challenge to Mogwai, and left this listener with the impression of being stuck inside of a Tesla transformer.

"The Hawk is Howling" “The Hawk is Howling”

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