Mogwai – Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 (2005)

Here I am, a Mogwai novice. Curiosity fuelled, I read all about Mogwai on the indecently useful (and diverting) AMG, and subsequently decided to purchase an album. Lots of people say that live albums are incredibly annoying progressive rock statements of overblown pretension, but many of the reviews floating around cyberspace of this album as being a greatest hits, of sorts.

So of course I bought it.

And it rocks.

Hard.

In between the quiet bits.

For those of you that don’t know, Mogwai are “post-rock”. That’s rock with its head up its own arse, but in the best possible way. Washes of noise and gentle ambient tones, the lulling waves of percussion, bass and the very occasional ethereal vocal, all occasionally bursting into squalls of distorted mayhem, are what Mogwai “do”. It’s their aesthetic, and for it to be called post-rock, as if rock is stuck in some kind of blues rock/hard rock/heavy metal time capsule is absurd. Rock is just music played by people with guitars that has some lineage with the blues… post-rock, my arse.

Rant over, and review to begin. I really feel that this is an incredible piece of music; recorded over 6 years, 2 radio shows and yet still sounding like it was all played in one night, this collection of live sessions flows like a perfect set: the emotional, sonic peak, the middle section of Like Herod, is an explosion of distorted riffs and feedback, white noise and live electronic noodling that builds on the harmonic lines of the song, and of the subtle, shifting textures of the set itself.

Hunted By A Freak is almost dangerously poppy, with a real melody; R U Still In 2 It gently builds up the tension, leading into my favourite track in the first half, New Paths to Helicon, Part 2. The melody fairly swoons along, and has such a beautifully fractured emotional undertone, it’s lulling and heartbreaking at the same time. Kappa, moves back to building tension, with suspense ridden strums and an expectant bass line driving forward into Cody, the first of the tracks to feature any vocals which, much like Helicon, Part 2, has a gentleness that cannot prepare one fully for the monster of Like Herod.

Let’s get it out of the way. Yes, this song is 18:30 long. No, it’s not full of self indulgent guitar soloing. Harmonic lines interweave, for about 3 minutes, and you think “18 minutes of this?”. Then comes the storm. Words cannot prepare you for the change. One minute, a nice little riff is being plucked away, rising and falling in volume, but all pretty chilled. A blank few seconds and then BAM! someone fell over his distortion pedal and really ripped the guts out of his guitar, much in the same way as Jeff Beck decided to do in 1968, but a million times harder. More gentleness. More power. More shock. More confusion. The melodies in Like Herod, I am assured, are actually harmonies, but who gives a toss? It’s still one of the greatest achievements of the last 20 years, rock-wise, and that this is performed live, with no studio additions, is truly wonderful.

Secret Pint, the track that has to compete with this, is an antidote. It’s soft, gentle, has vocals much in the same way as Cody, and in fact, sounds a bit like Cody. At this point, you might start to feel that you’ve been cheated, and that Like Herod has in fact stolen your soul and you can’t continue to listen, for the world has ended and all that’s left are dynamic shifts to make you want to float in the cosmos gently shaking to their frequencies. Listen to Superheroes Of BMX. Please. For me. Just so that you understand how Like Herod would be if you turned it inside out and changed the anger, the power and the terror into love, hope, and uplifting spiritual music, man.

New Paths To Helicon, Part 1, once again, explodes, but in a much more vital, BMX style way: once you’ve had your skull unscrewed with Herod, you’re ready to achieve Mogwai’s version of the enlightenment, of nirvana, of epiphany. That is, you can appreciate noise and the sheer Mogwainess of it all, but letting highly jagged sound waves pierce the inner workings of your brain, seemingly without noticing it. By the end of this disc, with the pretty (yes, pretty) washes of distorted loveliness that is Stop Coming To My House bouncing around your brain, you’ll be reeling. My ear drums were never the same again.

8/10 (it’s just not for everyone, and Kappa can be a bit boring. Plus, apparently, it hasn’t got Dial:Revenge or Mogwai Fear Satan on it, so it must be crap.)

No.

9/10, as it’s got John Peel going “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mogwai!” – and it sounds like these chaps are right next to you, not recorded 6 years apart. Simply the best produced live album I’ve ever heard.

Listen on Spotify

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