Mogwai breaks the sound barrier gently with its languid, escalating melodies on Sunday at the Jefferson. (Courtesy of Sub Pop Records)
The Scottish band Mogwai debuted in the mid-’90s with a handful of albums and EPs of anthemic experimental rock, characterized by gorgeous, hypnotic guitar lines that would continue for minutes on end before exploding into lengthy crescendos of crushing intensity. Its songs largely eschewed traditional verse/chorus structures or discernible lyrics, instead favoring barely-intelligible recordings of phone conversations, TV noise, or occasionally half-mumbled monologues courtesy of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat or the band’s own Stuart Braithwaite. For the most part the soaring, ear-bleeding guitar parts spoke for themselves.
Such intense and expressive music can inspire feverish devotion among followers, but one of the secrets of Mogwai’s longevity is that it remains hesitant to repeat a successful formula. In fact, many other groups seem far more enthusiastic about revising the band’s past glories than Mogwai itself—imitators such as Japan’s Mono and Texas’ Explosions in the Sky have seemingly based entire careers on manufacturing carbon copies of Mogwai’s 1997 classic Young Team and its’ album-closing 16-minute epic, “Mogwai Fear Satan.”
Mogwai seemingly perfected this formula with 2001’s My Father, My King, a 20-minute EP based entirely on repeating the same guitar riff (a melody taken from a traditional Jewish hymn) with gradually increasing degrees of volume, beginning as a gentle lullaby and ending in deafening white noise.
Over the past decade, Mogwai’s music has changed considerably. While the group is happy to occasionally revisit the style its fans love most (the soundtrack to the Douglas Gordon documentary about French footballer Zinedane Zidane is superb, if predictable), its just as likely to turn out something like 2008’s The Hawk is Howling, a collection of punchy, no-nonsense instrumentals whose combination of heavy riffs and studio polish recall the prime of the grunge era (appropriately, Mogwai is now distributed in the U.S. by the Sub Pop label, the original home of Nirvana).
Mogwai seems to need to reinvent itself, to re-think both the content of its music and the way its perceived. On recent albums, the group has grown more concise, dense, and playful. It has narrowed its scope but broadened its palette—while the songs rarely surpass six minutes, they increasingly include electronic textures, orchestral accompaniment, and auto-tuned vocals alongside the driving guitar melodies.
While early contemporaries like Godspeed You! Black Emperor portrayed themselves as mysterious, reclusive, somber chroniclers of the decay of human civilization, the chaps in Mogwai seem like their primary non-musical concerns consist of heading down to the pub to catch the match over a pint and a larf. The album and song titles have gone from puzzling and cryptic to deliberately ridiculous: The latest full-length, 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, features tracks entitled “How to Be a Werewolf” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie” (declared by one severely intoxicated band member foolishly upon unexpectedly encountering the titular singer at Heathrow Airport).
“I think the juxtaposition of the less serious titles and the brutally serious music is a good one,” Braithwaite said. “Loads of the people who hear the record will have a completely different view of what it means. I like that too.”
Mogwai will appear at the Jefferson Theater on Sunday, June 10, supported by the young Pennsylvania-based beatmaker Balam Acab. It’s the band’s second appearance in Charlottesville, after a gig at Satellite Ballroom in 2006. Redlight Management’s Danny Shea, who booked both concerts, said he has high hopes for Sunday. “At the Satellite show, they definitely had respect for the limitations of the sound system there,” Shea said. “I caught them at South By Southwest on the same tour and they were much louder.” Shea predicts the Jefferson show will strike the right balance of quality and volume: “If you think you heard Mogwai at the Satellite, you should come to this show and really hear them.” The use of earplugs is advised.