If you were to make a list of bands who it’s absolutely imperative to see perform live before they hang up their guitars/synths/etc, Glaswegian post-rockers Mogwai would be right up there near the top. They’ve released a string of great records and one stone-cold masterpiece (1997’s Young Team), but it’s in the live setting where their dynamic power and visceral intensity is at its purest. Their shows have gone down in legend – often reaching My Bloody Valentine-style levels of volume, but always alternating their ear-splitting guitar workouts with moments of subdued beauty.
Although live albums are always imperfect substitutes for the real thing, Special Moves (a companion piece to the live documentary/film, Burning, directed by Vincent Moon and Nathanael Le Scouarnec) does a pretty good job of capturing Mogwai’s sonic capabilities. Recorded during a three-night residency at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg in 2009, this is the band’s first live album, and features a track(set)list that spans all stages of their career, from the tension-release ferocity of ‘Like Herod’ to the sinister slow-build of ‘I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School’.
Opening number ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ showcases a neat variation on the quiet-loud dynamic that Mogwai have made their own: beginning with a melancholic, ominous piano figure, the song steadily builds in intensity, adding instrumental layers; before you know it, you’re immersed in a swirling whirlwind of sound. Similarly, ‘You Don’t Know Jesus’ expertly creates a sense of dread before its keening, discordant guitars kicks in, while an awe-inspiring 12-minute version of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ builds from ambient guitar rumble to transcendental crescendos of white noise.
The Glaswegians’ ability to infuse post-rock structures with an emotive heft not usually associated with instrumental music remains unmatched, while the hypnotic, insistent melodies of ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ (no banjo unfortunately) and ‘I Know You Are But What Am I?’ prove that the band can build atmosphere without necessarily needing to obliterate it with waves of guitar squall.
Special Moves is by no means definitive – heavy-hitting show-stoppers like ‘Christmas Steps’ and ‘My Father My King’ are absent – but for the uninitiated this makes for a more-than-useful introduction to the band. As for the already-converted, this mightn’t be quite as impressive as 2005’s BBC Sessions, but it comes pretty damn close. The sound and mastering are terrific throughout, with a few of these live tracks arguably trumping their recorded equivalents. A worthy addition to their catalogue.