Are Scotland’s premier post-rock heroes too loud for an old punk?
Pleasure and Pain had a ferocious bout in Boston the night of April 8th at at the Paradise Rock Club in front of a packed house of nearly 1000 people.
It went 14 rounds and Pain won in a TKO, though the writing was on the wall by the 4th round. Pleasure snuck in a few licks here and there – and sometimes got on a winning mini-blissful streak – but ultimately Pain pummeled Pleasure. It was not pretty. Well, it was kinda pretty. In places. But not enough pretty. And way too brutal
I exited the building with rock ‘n’ roll shellshock.
The band in question was the Scottish group Mogwai, born in 1995 and consisting of guitarist-singer Stuart Braithwaite, guitarist-pianist-synthist-singer Barry Burns, bassist Dominic Aitchison, drummer Martin Bulloch and touring guitarist-keyboardist Alex Mackay. At the gig, they were spread out in a semi-circle, ringing the stage with no one musician front-center. That was empty space. Made sense; no one here presents themselves The Star, there’s zero showmanship (it’s shoegaze, after all) and visually, there really was not much to look at – no background films or dynamic gestures. The only visual shifts were the changing lighting – red wash, blue wash, sparkly lights, purple lights, strobes, etc. And whatever lyrics were sung – some songs have ‘em, most don’t – don’t matter. Couldn’t hear them, all words subsumed under the clamor and din.
Now, let me back up a bit here – I am a fan, have been for a couple of decades. But I’d not seen them live and, though warned about the volume, was not prepared for the full-frontal assault on my brain, my ears and anything connected to them. (Is the solar plexus connected? That, too.) I’d forgotten my custom-made ear plugs (like I usually do) and the club’s stage manager, Billy Bud, kindly supplied me with a pair of those squishy generic foam ones before the set. He’d been there for the sound check and knew.
I made it naked – that is, sans plugs – for about four songs and was writing stuff in my notebook like “chiming guitars with thunderous bass” and “sounds kinda like New Order’s ‘Ceremony’” and “though seemingly static, there’s a shimmering undercurrent, a kind of slow dazzle.” They brought to mind Swans, another super-high decibel band I’d seen in the same club a decade back. Swans transfixed me with their jaw-dropping mega-decibel volume and ugly beauty; not for everybody, I knew, but I dug it. (Well, I have dug; one I was mesmerized for two hours and another time I exited at song two.) Was Mogwai going to do make magical music noise?
Not quite. I should note Mogwai is a band whose albums made two of my year-end top ten lists in recent years and a band I played often in the car or at home. They perfect soundtracks for unmade movies of your mind because as sweeping and grand as the music can be, it’s very, shall we say, non-specific. They’ve also made soundtracks for real movies and TV series, too, seven by my count, including one of those top 10ers for me, 2018’s Kin. They’ve made 10 non-soundtrack albums, including last year’s All the Love Continues. Nearly half the 95-minute set came from the latter disc.
A Pitchfork review last year nailed Mogwai perfectly: “A Mogwai melody always sounds like a eulogy for someone you’ve never met. Whether played on a hushed piano or pushed through Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns’ guitars, their writing is sad in a way that’s not personal: full of familiar emotions, but still opaque about the specifics.”
Now, in both my favorite listening spots – home (earbuds or speakers) or car (speakers, Spotify) are places where I CONTROL THE VOLUME. Here at the club, I was a lamb led to the sonic slaughter – all right, I was on a guest list and eager to see/review the show so not a lamb, exactly. Certainly, many in the crowd thrashed their heads side-to-side as layers upon layers of guitars, keys and drums poured out and down upon them – the floor remained full throughout – but I wasn’t alone in my discomfort. Midway through, I found myself not in the balcony’s front row – where press privilege had put me – but on a padded bench at the furthest reaches of the club’s upper level. Those benches were pretty full. I looked to my left and there was a woman, also alone, sitting there, stoically, with plugs in (a facemask too, for that matter). After one of the songs ended, she applauded politely and then got up – to leave or get closer get a drink or take piss, that I do not know.
Mogwai’s specialty – not unlike the Velvets, Pixies, Nirvana, Slowdive, Ride and scores more – is the quiet-to-loud transition. Climbing the mountain in search of something majestic. Some have called that a modern rock cliche and maybe it is but it’s one I’m mostly a sucker for. And in the early part of the concert that ever-pleasant thought about enjoying sculpted noise was quavering in my head. They started with “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate the Earth” – soft, then loud but lovely. I should mention I like Mogwai’s song titles in the same way I like Penguin Café Orchestra’s song titles. Others played last weekend: “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home,” “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” “It’s What I Want to Do, Mum” and “Mogwai Fear Satan.”
A historical/personal diversion: Years ago, I interviewed The Who’s bassist John Entwistle, after he played a bone-crushingly loud gig with his solo band. The Who has long been considered one of the loudest rock bands; Entwistle’s group was similar. His initial response was the same for every question: “What?” With a repeat of the question, he could mostly follow.
I probably snickered a bit. I know now of where he came.
I have always liked it loud. No, not painfully so, but concert loudness issues were out of my control. I saw Ramones at CBGB in 1977, front row, and it was punk rock nirvana. No pain, exactly, but my ears rang for a week. I considered it a justifiable risk and thought I dodged a figurative bullet. But eventually, you realize hearing loss doesn’t necessarily happen immediately from one loud blast, but builds up incrementally over time. And there were many more notable sonic booms over time:
My audiologist told me I have “high pitch and high frequency loss in both ears, a sharp drop-off in the 3000-8000 hertz range and a loss of 40-50 dB. That damage, she added, could be summed up as “moderate hearing loss” – difficulty picking up a conversation in a crowded restaurant, trouble hearing speech in certain movies and TV shows and, as my wife can attest, problems with where the female voice is often pitched. My audiologist said anything over 85 dB can cause hearing loss. Workout classes at the gym can go over 100 dB, rock concerts can hit 115 dB.
I was at two concerts recently, Billy Strings and Dropkick Murphys, where the mix was clear and the sound loud, but absolutely appropriate loud. You couldn’t chit-chat with someone and hear them – that’s good – and your entire focus was on the band what was coming from them. No need for ear protection. No pain, all pleasure.
Really, that’s become part of the criteria now. No more of that old musician’s joke “I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.”
VIDEO: Mogwai “Ceiling Granny”