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Mogwai - Special Moves

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Artist: Mogwai

Album: Special Moves

Label: Rock Action

Review date: Aug. 27, 2010

It’s always harder to lead than follow when you’re a musician, and it’s borderline impossible to stay at the front of the pack. Ask everyone from Throbbing Gristle to R.E.M.: It’s extraordinary when artists break new ground and own it their entire career (not everybody can be Johnny Cash). Mogwai, as one of the progenitors of "post-rock,” certainly exemplify what usually happens. Some 14 years ago, the Scottish band became the standard-bearers for dramatic, mostly-instrumental rock, basing their approach on sudden swerves from calm beauty into ferocious waves of thundering fuzz. Since then, their work has suffered somewhat in comparison with their offspring, including tremendous bands like Mono and Explosions in the Sky that have taken the original notions and run with them.

With Special Moves, Mogwai offers a new pitch for its place in history, combining a set of immaculate live recordings with a concert DVD. The audio is both the band’s first live release as well as a career overview, pulling at least one song from each of its half-dozen albums and placing them in a set that spans both time and mood to make this a great starting point for younger listeners who aren’t familiar with Mogwai.

Recorded live in April 2009 during a three night visit to the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the recordings are superb (aside from the occasional applause, you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a studio album). With three nights from which to choose, the band had the luxury of selecting the best performances, so the songs are all high-quality stuff, well-played and displaying the spark that a live show can give to a song. Ordinarily one would think of the live show "energy,” which is certainly here, but the odd thing about Mogwai is that it plays off the tension between calm, pastoral passages and wide-open cathartic roar, the former purposely laying back and conserving energy. In the best pieces, like "You Don’t Know Jesus,” the band combines the two sides simultaneously, with gently pretty melodies barely hanging on beneath layers of distortion.

Mogwai’s signature piece may be "Mogwai Fear Satan,” which halfway through descends into a section so quiet that it’s actually annoying — luckily, watching the band play it is more engaging. The highlight of both the CD and DVD, though, is "Hunted by a Freak,” with its gorgeous combination of interlocking guitar notes and vocals tweaked so the words are washed away into a keyboard-like texture.

The film, titled Burning and directed by Vincent Moon and Nathanael Le Scouarnec, is an artistic black & white combination of live footage with between-song snippets of the band walking around the area and the audience at the venue. The performance features lots of close-ups of instruments intercut with rapturous crowd shots. It’s moody and atmospheric, which suits the material well; occasional quick edits and motion blurs take over when the songs really ramp up. The directors let their edits interfere only infrequently, a few times opting unwisely for queasy shaky-cam, but mainly letting us watch the band do its thing. (About half of the DVD tracks are not part of the CD set, though they’re available on the vinyl or download versions, which seems like a good reason not to bother buying the CD.)

With Special Moves, Mogwai have released a “greatest hits” collection in a sense, but it’s indeed more special than that. Dramatic, at turns gentle, majestic and harsh, both old and new songs blend so well that there’s no feeling of weak recent material sagging amidst earlier favorites. The performances reveal that, at least in a live setting, the band remains a master of the style it popularized.

By Mason Jones

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