Sunday, 5 September 2010

Mogwai - Special Moves (CD version) Album Review (2010)

A ‘live’ album is always a tricky thing. Fans have been waiting for Scotland’s Mogwai to release a live recording for years and now it has arrived in the form of Special Moves, the band’s first collection of live performances taken from their US tour in 2009. The issue here is if the band are able to translate the carefully choreographed music not only onto the live stage but into a live package. This is a review of the CD/digital version of the album.

The set list for Special Moves is eleven songs with three over nine minutes. So with space and time limited, the band has picked the chosen few from the entire back catalogue. There are two from début album Mogwai Young Team, one from Come On Die Young, two from Rock Action, two from Happy Songs for Happy People, two from Mr Beast and two from The Hawk Is Howling. So no room for the mighty Auto Rock, no room for the wonderful Kids Will Be Skeletons, no Stanley Kubrick or Ratts Of The Capital and no Kings Meadow. Given the quality of Mogwai’s last three albums, this could have been a four hour 3 CD box set but credit is due for making this an aural account of three gigs across three consecutive gigs in Brooklyn and not a mash-up of six or seven to create a huge lumbering behemoth. Likewise it is not just stacked with ‘recent’ songs. Yes, Mogwai’s last two albums have been their best but many of their most arresting songs were conceived earlier. So the noticeably absent New Paths To Helicon Part I, Batcat and Scotland’s Shame are included as part of Burning, the eight track film DVD included with the physical album.

Special Moves opens with the delicate piano intro of I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead and slowly builds to a multi-layered swathe of guitars, more entwined than the original and swamping the piano in a buzzing electronic swarm. The precise arrangement is now replaced with a free-flowing louder liberated and feedback-infused sound. The majestic Friend Of The Night is given a kinder treatment, as the piano is allowed to breathe within the murky sea of crashing cymbals and guitars. Without this, the song’s important central core would be lost. The sound mix is perfect. Hunted By A Freak is excellently delivered, complete with vocoder vocals that breathe and flow through the spine of the song.

At nearly twelve minutes, Mogwai Fear Satan is the longest song on Special Moves. The two minute introduction shimmers with subtle ambience before drums kick in and the guitars build for what is the high point of the first half of the album. At three minutes the sound is complete and the arrangement swirls like an open sea before a storm. Into minute five and the sound steadies and calms, drifting quietly away. Those who know the song are waiting for it to return and as expected, it does, after what seems like an eternity, for a final three minute blast of noise. The guitars squeal and strain through the relentless pounding drums then gradually subside. An exhilarating performance.
Cody, the only song in the set with ‘proper’ vocals (a rarity in the Mogwai repertoire) works to a point as the words add context to the sad guitar arrangement. But it’s not a great rendition and would benefit from a smoother softer production. You Don’t Know Jesus follows the more typical Mogwai formula: start quietly and deliberately then build over two minutes into a crescendo of guitars, a central riff piercing the surrounding chaotic soundscape. The song predictably slows and quietens again only to return for a second defiant last stand. It is almost the ‘complete’ Mogwai song and is executed expertly within the now familiar ‘live’ style. And this brings the album to the only song that doesn’t work when the creative forces of the stage invade the original intention of a song. I Know You Are But What Am I? is over a minute shorter than the studio version and is given a space-aged feedback guitar treatment during the ordinarily melodic sections. And the whole song feels uneasy and rushed.

Thankfully this is not the signs of wheels coming off and the whole thing descending into and exercise in self-indulgence as I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School is near-perfection. With a louder introduction leading to the menacing build-up, this is an example of focus and control throughout the eight minutes as one of the best tracks from The Hawk Is Howling becomes a standout song on Special Moves. Every note and arrangement is given an extra burst of energy, an extra notch on the volume control. After the second build-up and with just over a minute to go when the explosive (pun intended) ending arrives, the barrage of noise is spectacular.

The quality continues into the final three songs. 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong, an early favourite and second song to use vocoder vocals, quickly becomes the most mellow chilled-out song on the album. This is Mogwai at their most pleasant and their most pleasing, even if things do start to break up towards the end. The second ‘epic’ Like Herod is another huge master class of noise control; the song is soft and delicate one minute and explosively unpredictable the next as it fuses stabbing guitars and feedback. This is the big brother of Mogwai Fear Satan, taking a similar path from loud into spine-tingling ambience only to return suddenly, more ferocious than before. The final three minutes is a torrential downpour of sound. Excellent. Mogwai end Special Moves with Glasgow Megasnake which is an odd choice that leads to a relentless charge to the finish instead of a subtle sign-off. That said, it is a perfect execution.

Special Moves is a fantastic snapshot of a band performing a wide ranging collection of songs with precision and skill. Mogwai’s music is intricate and complex and the band show this through their live performances of songs that build to rousing finales or burst into explosive torrents of guitars and drums. There is delicacy and poise within the layers of sound. Mogwai are not the most vocal of bands (as in their music) when performing live and there is very little atmosphere between the songs - a simple introduction to namedrop Glasgow and a few thanks to the (mostly) respectful crowd. But no signoff or extended applause which is a shame. You don’t always feel like you are part of the experience which is a point of a live album. This is minor discretion as the music more than makes up for it. Special Moves is an excellent addition to the Mogwai catalogue.

- CS

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