The last time Mogwai headlined in London, they did so to 10,000 people in Alexandra Palace. It was May 2022, the echoing guitars and in-jokes of their tenth album, As the Love Continues, had a year prior shockingly topped the UK charts, and the band were inarguably the most beloved post-rock name in the country. Maybe the world.
Tonight’s setup is the opposite of that one. Make no mistake: Mogwai are still the kings of their genre, their passion for pedals and crescendoing suites no weaker than the last time around. But what was, nine months ago, five digits’ worth of onlookers has been slashed to 600.
The aristocracy of atmospheric rock is setting foot in Highbury bar The Garage to honour a grassroots venue turning thirty – and you couldn’t pick better hosts for this birthday party. Mogwai was made within these walls. Sure, the band formed up in Glasgow in 1995, but within this room, they recorded a set for DJ extraordinaire John Peel to broadcast nationwide.
Then, months later, they capped off their first headline tour here. And that mutual history is acknowledged as soon as the Scotsmen arrive, when they commence almost two hours of dynamism with the first song from their debut album, ‘Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home’.
With its lead bass lick accompanied by twinkling guitars and then a mighty metal riff, the opener adheres to the classic Mogwai tactic of ambience exploding into cacophony. And what a cacophony it is. Death metal forces have levelled the Garage and not produced the sheer volume that Mogwai deal in daily. It’s not uncommon for bass and drums to rumble your chest, but for the guitars to sound so hefty that they have the same effect is nigh unheard of.
The barrage of noise is justified, though. When you’re an act specialising in catharsis and climaxes – like when ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ plummets from soft cymbals to a blast of full-tilt, three-guitar rock – oomph is everything. It also makes the smoother melodies of ‘Remurdered’, where bassist Dominic Aitchison joins multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns on keyboards, all the more inescapable. If you don’t dance to it, you’re likely dead.
Almost immediately as dazzling as the sonic power is the visual splendour. Mogwai’s arrival was as low-key as any headliner could make: wearing Bauhaus and Converge t-shirts, they simply picked up their instruments in darkness with no intro tape. However, by the onset of ‘Boltfor’, they’ve brought arena spectacle to a club show.
Columns of white light grow and shrink behind the musicians before ‘How to Be a Werewolf’ heralds spotlights with splintering beams that twirl beautifully. The twenty-minute behemoth ‘My Father, My King’ weds its waves of metal instrumentation to all-consuming floods of light, separated by the screeching of noise rock pinch harmonics.
It’s a larger-than-life extravaganza from down-to-earth human beings. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite assumes the role of de facto frontman among his group, yet his visits to the microphone are rare. There’s almost comedy in how songs of skull-rattling intensity are separated by introverted thank-you-very-muches. His sole turn at singing, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’, is a softly sung exercise in shoegaze bliss with no archetypical rock n’ roll swagger.
However, such shyness only adds to the Mogwai experience. Between their anti-rock-star demeanour, tongue-in-cheek song titles (see Exorcist III reference ‘Ceiling Granny’) and casual onstage clothing, they look like and have the humour of your mates down the pub. Yet they’ve ascended to number one and routinely cultivate shows that use volume and visuals to push you to an affected place.
That’s an even more important thing than being stunning – that’s inspirational.
Mogwai play at The Garage again tonight (7th February), then tour the UK from 9th February.