The stage set-ups tell the story of this micro-festival curated by Mogwai, the centrepiece of their All Tomorrow’s Parties season at the Roundhouse. A menacing line of speaker stacks pushes Lightning Bolt right to the edge; the duo have just a slim envelope of space in which to slot themselves, a neat visual metaphor for the deliberate constrictions they place on themselves musically. Brian Chippendale plays drums and occasionally screeches into a microphone attached to a clown mask; Brian Gibson plays bass. What emerges is a pulverising avalanche of noise. Gibson feeds his bass through a palette of pedals that transform his blues chords and rippling arpeggios into screams of catastrophe, while Chippendale pounds the drums as though trying to demolish skyscrapers: a combined roar that shifts in tone and pace with a subtlety that is surprisingly organic.
Tortoise, by contrast, clutter the whole stage with instruments, but bring a pleasing order through symmetry: a glockenspiel on one side mirrored by a vibraphone on the other; two drum kits facing off, centre-front. Syncopating influences from jazz and funk to grime, doubled-up drum lines sometimes support each other, sometimes compete. The complications of these rhythms might make Tortoise sound cerebral, but they’re not immune to sounds that bring levity: a cheesy disco synth riff or the strut of spaghetti westerns. In Glass Museum, that lightness becomes light, John Herndon making the vibraphone gleam while Jeff Parker’s aqueous guitar shimmers radiantly.
All this is stripped away for GZA: a platform for the DJ is the only furniture obstructing the rapper, and even that sometimes is too much for him. Frequently he instructs the music to stop so he can “stress this rhyme”, enunciating verses from All in Together Now and Animal Planet with absolute deliberation so that every linguistic nuance and pop-culture reference can be caught. That intricacy and attack, combined with the percussive quality of his voice, put GZA in a sound world related to Lightning Bolt and Tortoise, but many of Mogwai’s fans aren’t as open-minded as the band themselves, drifting to the exit rather than paying attention. Admittedly, the flurries of improvisation and repeated call-and-response of Wu and Tang are not so inspired. But when GZA ends with Big Bang Rap, a run-through of our expanding universe since the dawn of time transformed into a metaphor for contemporary hip-hop, you wonder if there’s anyone to match him.