E# is a composer and multi-instrumentalist living in New York City. Besides writing music for Hilary Hahn, RadioSinfonie Frankfurt, JACK Quartet, and the Ensemble Modern, he performs solo and with his bands Terraplane, Carbon, and Aggregat. He has collaborated with Hubert Sumlin, Debbie Harry, Christian Marclay, and Bachir Attar and is the subject of the recent documentary Doing the Don’t.
Hitting “play” and hearing the first strains of Rave Tapes transported me back to September 2010 and Mt. Ezu in Japan, site of Metamorphose, a festival-size concert party — a “rave,” if you will — and my first hearing of Mogwai. I was there to perform in the electric guitar quartet of Matthias Göttsching of Ashra Tempel and E2E4 fame. The hotel was a typical onsen (hot springs spa) and in the lounge that afternoon, I first met the members of the band, an affable and earnest bunch of young men huddled over laptops and tablets, and notable in that, from external appearances, I could not at all distinguish the musicians from the crew.
I’d been aware of Mogwai for years but never had a chance to listen and knew very little about them, having sworn off reading most music press sometime late in the 20th century. From backstage after our own set, I heard a massive drone blooming forth, rich with digital texture and synthetic ambience, a tangy combination of warm and cool. This morphed into a simple but powerful rock groove with an equally simple, nearly banal, melodic chord progression. I kept expecting another layer to appear, perhaps vocals or a countermelody, but things remained fairly static. I turned to a friend and asked “So, what is this?” and I was informed it was “post-rock.” I was not completely ignorant of this sub-genre, having had some discussions with various colleagues about it over the years. The general conclusion was that it was an ambiguous and ambivalent term — used both for adoration and condemnation, depending on one’s feelings about the music in question, music that was somewhat emotionally distanced, somewhat punk, somewhat Minimalist, somewhat referential, somewhat arty and progressive.
At any given moment, I liked what I heard, and the audience, many thousands strong, seemed to as well. There was continuous movement — certainly it could be called dancing — but it actually seemed to be more of a swaying modulated by soft vertical waves. The beats the band played were strong but not hot, as if a group of intellectuals set up a committee to create an alternate version of rock and funk, a Platonic ideal that appropriated all of the proper elements and functioned perfectly but lacked only the smell, the deep essence. I don’t mean for this to sound like a snide dis, because it isn’t — I heard a very appealing sound ranging from near delicacy to towering cinematic grandeur, everything in perfect proportion and beautifully orchestrated. It was mostly instrumental and I kept waiting for somebody sounding like Bono to peal out some anthemic but non-committal sentiment or else an excursion into chaotic noise. Neither of these things ever happened. The vocals were sporadic and mostly quiet though occasionally there was some football-style unison chanting of the type that makes me think the uniformed and jackbooted neo-whatevers are rounding up anyone who isn’t fashionable enough. The music never lost control.
Over the course of the set I found that a stereotypical Mogwai formula emerged: sensitive shit gradually expanding and building on itself into waves of unison riffs repeated insistently but stopping just before the point of ecstasy — musicus interruptus. This is an important point, as the nature of post-rock asserts itself in the self-abnegating avoidance of the ultimate disappearance into the void.
The musicians seemed to be committed enough onstage — they were digging in and playing hard. Still, like so much of what I’ve come to understand as post-rock, it just skirted the precipice. Old geezers such as I crave the dangerous brinkmanship and the fall into the unknown — from my teen years and long after, this is what I needed to feel as a listener and found in the music of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, and Xenakis. While I certainly don’t expect all music to operate from that approach, I do appreciate it when I find it, rarer all the time. There are many bands that have no desire to enter the void and I can’t fault them for not making the attempt. But, getting back to Mt. Ezu and this little rave, Mogwai rocked the intelligent party band concept and I enjoyed them.
Back in the bunker, I’m listening to Mogwai’s new record Rave Tapes on little speakers connected to my laptop and trying to bridge the gap between my actual memories of the band and this digital memento. Feeling that I was missing a large element, I switched to my studio monitors in hopes of recapturing some of what I heard out on Mt. Ezu. It helped. With the general devaluation of recorded music, I much prefer to hear musicians in person, in full socio-acoustic feedback mode, moving those air molecules, sending and receiving pheromones, sweating, making mistakes, and sometimes reaching transcendance. A studio recording is something entirely different. I love the process of recording and the few “new” records that I most enjoy these days all heed the call of studio-as-instrument and produce the best kind of artifice. There’s a fine line to be drawn between calculated perfection and equally calculated pseudo-rawness. At the same time, there’s another fine line between personal style and self-parody.
Though, overall, Mogwai are predictable in the way the songs unfold, the sonic inventiveness they display in the details saves the day. Each song has some little trick that gives it an identity. Underpinning it all is the solid rhythm section, with bass and synth-bass providing depth and a drive when coupled with the motoric drums. While every song on Rave Tapes has been carefully constructed, a few stand out. The vocoded voice and organ of “The Lord Is out of Control” is both gorgeous and a little disturbing: the classic Kraftwerk “man or machine?” trope. “Heard About You Last Night” begins with gongs, then a twangy riff, disparate elements that work mighty well together. “Hexon Bogon” starts out like a college-rock poster child with its “alt guitars” but transforms into a majestic spaghetti-Western anthem. The ancient chestnut “Stairway to Heaven” provides the impetus for “Repelish,” with its archly spoken narration about the Led Zep song and Satanism. It’s amusing and lays the irony on thick — or does it? My favorite title in a pantheon of clever titles is “No Medicine for Regret” which builds to a big melody and a bigger beat before dissolving into quiet strummed guitar and organ. The fragile singing of “Blues Hour” gives way to a white-noise squall that is exciting, though I wished it continued ascending to glorious excess. The entire record is eminently tasteful but not brash enough to cut through the fog. Still, this might be a perfect record to have on the ‘pod in the final portion of a trans-Atlantic flight when you need something to get the blood flowing, but not so complicated that you actually have to listen deeply.