“Warning: this performance contains flashing images,” glowers the holding page for Mogwai’s online gig. I’m reminded of the most intense show I ever saw in my life, which was theirs. They were a new band at the time, formed in Glasgow; pioneers of a new style called post-rock, promoting their 1997 debut album, Mogwai Young Team. Playing instrumental tracks that moved abruptly from quietness to loudness, a style that would become their trademark, they shredded their guitars and slammed on the effects pedals as they strobed white lights into the audience.
I remember screwing my eyes shut, submerging myself among strangers in the fabulous noise. I try this technique again nearly a quarter of a century later, but full immersion is hard when you’re on a sofa, the fire’s on, and the cat keeps strolling by. Synth player Barry Burns nails another aspect of the weirdness of watching Mogwai at home, in a tweet just before the live stream begins. It’s a post that demonstrates just how beloved they are as a live entity: “This is your chance to talk all the way through a Mogwai gig and not get angry stares.”
Tonight’s gig showcases the band’s 10th album, As the Love Continues, played in full and filmed by longtime collaborator Antony Crook (the performance itself is pre-recorded, but launched to fans in different countries at the same time). The LP was made last summer – not in the US as intended, with their producer, Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), but in a converted church in Worcestershire. Stuart Braithwaite has said what a warm, positive record it was to make – as chaos reigned in the rest of the world, Fridmann in Cassadaga, New York state, looming over proceedings on Zoom like a benevolent indie Big Brother.
We’re taken to Tramway in Glasgow, a moodily lit, brick-walled depot, which acts as a good visual cue for Mogwai’s expansive, subterranean sound. They launch with a track named after a phrase uttered by Blanck Mass’s Benjamin John Power, a friend of the band, in his sleep: To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth. Their familiar minor-key, cyclical chord progressions slowly unfold, arriving like soft, sunlit tides.
It’s discombobulating to experience Mogwai through the medium of film. You don’t go to their gigs to scrutinise them as individuals (although the black-shirted, marble-headed Braithwaite admittedly has a peculiar charisma). At the beginning of Midnight Flit, as a doomy bassline ascends, Crook shoots the band from below like creatures in a fishbowl. Fast-flashing coloured lights are used liberally too, but they don’t have the same effect on a screen.
You feel for Mogwai. They make music for massed bodies to respond to in a room. As the gig progresses, I ache to see live music with others more than I have done in weeks (and I have been aching). This feeling is at its rawest in Dry Fantasy, a shuddering synthesiser epic carrying echoes of the Cure’s Disintegration LP, and Fuck Off Money, in which Burns uses a softube vocoder to process vocals into widescreen sad robot mode. The track then ascends into layers of cautious, startled optimism; music that’s joyous when it’s heard and shared communally.
As the Love Continues isn’t all intense mood music, however. It contains more conventional rockers, such as Ceiling Granny (Mogwai haven’t lost their penchant for daft song titles) and recent single Ritchie Sacramento, a tribute to lost, late friends including Silver Jews’ David Berman. Braithwaite does one of his rare singing spots here, his unfussy voice delivering the chorus – “all gone, all gone” – with fragile power. Other tracks (Drive the Nail; Pat Stains) float by somewhat, but when the encore comes along, you’re reminded of what Mogwai do best.
Like Herod – long a fan favourite, from 1997 – arrives like a heavy, awesome presence from the past. Its opening intricate guitar passages sound gnarlier and more discordant than ever, and strangely perfect on this chilly, mid-pandemic night. Sometimes music is more fun reflecting the times than repelling them.
It quietens almost to silence, and then the sonic onslaught begins, and for a moment, slamming my head to the downbeat, I’m in a packed room, feeling the heat and the sweat of what music can do. I can almost taste it. When the moment commands it, Mogwai still take you there.