In Joe Dante’s film Gremlins, the Mogwai is a cute’n’cuddly creature which, when exposed to water, transforms into a mischievous monster. As such, it’s always been taken as a neat metaphor for the way that Mogwai the band’s music frequently transforms from a polite, quiet instrumental figure into a raging blizzard of noise – albeit one which water presumably pays little part in effecting.
But there’s little mischief in this monstrous music. Generally bereft of cheekier rhythmic elements like funk and swing, their tracks tend to plod grimly along until the point of transformation, whereupon, rather than gaining speed or momentum, they simply become punishingly loud and distorted, the upper registers a blur of scrubbed guitar distortion over an amorphous, muddy bottom. “Friend of the Night” is typical: a guitar scribes elegant lines over a terse three-note motif from another guitar, while a keyboard wraps a wistful waltz-time figure around them, until the piece erupts into a shrill wall of distorted guitar. On “Rano Pano”, keyboardist Barry Burns switches to guitar to produce three different barrages of fuzzy guitar noise, with an organ top line mysteriously appearing without anybody apparently playing it.
Sometimes, the Whitbread Prize-nominated author Luke Sutherland joins them, adding sleek violin to the angular guitar figures of tracks like “Take Me Somewhere Nice” , “Christmas Steps” and “White Noise”, though it occupies a register already overcrowded with splintered shards of guitar. He also sings on the throbbing krautrock motorik of “Mexican Grand Prix”, but as with guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s occasional vocal contributions, the voice is a poor relation to the other instruments, an indecipherable murmur. On “The Lord Is Out of Control”, Burns sings a sinister vocal through an organ-tone vocoder, which effectively reduces it to simply an instrumental line, again ultimately smothered in sheets of guitar distortion. So why bother with words at all?
In recent years, particularly on last year’s TV soundtrack to Les Revenants and the new Rave Tapes album, Mogwai have tempered their characteristic style with an extra degree of subtlety and grace, so it’s heartening that the best pieces tonight mostly come from Rave Tapes. There’s a pleasing stealthy resonance about “Remurdered”, with its tingling electric piano and cryptic guitar punctuation; and “Mastercard” offers a clearer mode of psychedelic rock, with chunky Morse-code rhythm guitar chords.
“Heard About You”, however, is a revelation: bassist Dominic Aitchison plugs into John Cummings’ guitar rig, and the swampy rumble is suddenly replaced by beautiful, clear arpeggiated bass chords which intertwine on equal terms with the limpid electric piano and slinky guitar lines. In an epiphany, the shaggy coat of distortion clears away to reveal something far leaner and more graceful, a gazelle vaulting across open veldt rather than a lumbering, hairy monster trudging through a swamp. It’s an evolutionary process that can’t help but produce a stronger, more agile breed of Mogwai.