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Mogwai - Government Commissions: BBC Sessions, 1996-2003

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Artist: Mogwai

Album: Government Commissions: BBC Sessions, 1996-2003

Label: Matador

Review date: Apr. 24, 2005

Stephen Malkmus once called Mogwai the best band of the 21st Century. In an interview, guitarist John Cummings said Pavement's lead singer must have been sloshed. Maybe, but he also might have just experienced them in person. Mogwai’s albums, although sonically detailed and spotted with transcendent flashes, cannot compare to the monstrosity of their live show. Volume is experienced rather than heard. A pall of pure noise, guitar swells, synth drones and distortion meshes with intervals of impossible melancholy – the band’s power extracted equally from defiance, dejection and sarcasm.

Mogwai's latest, Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2004 culls 10 choice selections from numerous Radio 1 sit-ins with the immortal John Peel (the album is dedicated to his memory) and Steve Lamacq – both early enthusiasts of the band. Selections for the surprisingly cohesive listen span the band’s full-lengths; it's too bad the exceptional EPs don’t receive fair treatment.

Peel introduces opener “Hunted By A Freak” in his irreplaceable drawl as the track’s extraterrestrial tones provide an ideal introduction to the set. The “R U Still In2 It” take is about as languid as Mogwai gets, even without the assistance of Aidan Moffat’s hung-over verse. Renamed but unchanged, the timeless “New Paths to Helicon Pt. 2” highlights Mogwai’s penchant for distilling resplendence from desolation and one of instrumental rock’s prettiest moments shines here in particular, superior in quality to the almost lo-fi version found on Ten Rapid. “Cody," from the virtually pallid Come on Die Young, is one of a number of songs benefiting from a slight revamp, its night-driving vocals rising above dewy guitars to the point where they can actually be made out.

Mogwai’s signature soft-loud formula doesn’t reach critical mass until the apocalyptically brutal outbursts of “Like Herod.” An absolute beast of discord, its nearly 20 minutes would have been an apt score to the slaughter of Bethlehem’s babies. “New Paths To Helicon Pt. 1” might be 10 minutes shorter but is no less intense, its angelic guitars hopeful where “Herod”’s terrify.

Government Commissions plays as a fairly genuine approximation of Mogwai’s live setting. The achronological yet mindful sequence mimics the typical Mogwai song: building slowly, besieging the calm incrementally and letting down by lifting back up. Back-to-back tracks recorded years apart seem inseparable, and some of the recordings here are the strongest the band – or anyone else – has ever put to tape.

By Jake O'Connell

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