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LIVE REPORT: Mogwai
Laurie Tuffrey , August 8th, 2013 09:47

Laurie Tuffrey finds Mogwai on fine form at their recent Zidane show at London's Barbican

Photograph courtesy of Francesca Ferrari

It’s a momentous occasion, by all means: the final performance of Mogwai’s four-date-long run of live soundtracking Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s game-length film portrait of the mercurial French footballer Zinedine Zidane, and it’s the first time they’ve done so since the film was released in 2006. There is, refreshingly, no wordy introduction pointing up the significance of the occasion. There doesn’t need to be; everyone here knows they’re in for a treat, whether they’re fans of the band, Zidane, live soundtracks (perhaps drawn in through the band’s Les Revenants work this year), football... In fact, one member of the audience understands this so well, he voices our collective anticipation with a lone screech, transplanted from stadium to the Barbican’s somewhat cosier confines, as the film begins.

It’s a workmanlike start, the band themselves unlit (no change there, as Stuart Braithwaite told tQ’s Nicola Meighan recently: “Alan McGee always said that [...] one of the best things we had going for us was that no-one actually cared what we looked like”), the Universal logo rotating in space as familiar Mogwai metallic ambience emanates from the stage. Braithwaite starts up first, plucking the tremulous guitar line of ‘Black Spider’, soon joined by the rest of the band. The opening passage, a delicate interweave of instruments offset by an almost awkward rhythm, soon unfurls, ushered in by Barry Burns’ keys, into a song shot through with the band’s typical richness: it’s gorgeous, but at the same time undeniably tense, the first minutes of the game sonically mapped out with unease.

The footage on the screen, flicking between multiple different cameras, sometimes blurry, zoomed-in television broadcast, others filmic, high-definition close-ups, matched to Mogwai’s soundtrack, occasionally pausing to reveal the chatter of commentary or the solitary spoken interjections from Zidane himself, serve to paint a deeper portrait than merely a tribute. The soundscapes, hovering between major and minor tonality, pull away from the sense that this is the ceaseless tracing of the heroic actions of the most celebrated player on the pitch and rather draw lines under the strife and uncertainty of the game.

It’s this same sense that the following ‘Terrific Speech 2’ evokes: Burns’ piano chords are even-handed, but add in Braithwaite’s guitar line - almost, but not quite, mirroring it - and the song twists, bespeaking optimism and, with a gently foreboding string-bend, doubt in turn.

At the same time, Mogwai’s music occasionally (no doubt unintentionally) steps forward of the film, captivating enough on its own. ‘7.25’ is as luminous piece as anything on Come On Die Young or EP+6: spiralling guitar, rolling, economical bass, submerged organ, all held down by the inimitable heft of Martin Bulloch’s drums and building gracefully, sporadically frayed with distortion, to a crescendo and then dissolving.

By now, we’ve reached half-time. Rather than an interval, it’s taken as a chance for Mogwai to deploy one of the centrepieces of their arsenal. Over a sequence of subtitled images of other events taking place around the world on 23 April 2005, the day of the match, the band construct one of their trademark crescendos. So much of Mogwai’s power lies in restraint, the sense that surging behind the twinkling arpeggios is an awesome, tremendous force. So when they do consciously take the decision to rip your ears off, it’s a blunt-force blow. For ‘Half Time’, Bulloch and bassist Dominic Aitchison leave the stage, leaving Braithwaite, Burns and guitarist John Cummings to work up a sound that cuts across the auditorium, scythe-like, pushing at your chest and fizzing at your ears as footage culled from the day’s news - a car bomb in Iraq, plasmawave sounds recorded by the Voyager spaceship, a rare sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in North America - gets projected, the band’s music throwing the random eclecticism of daily reportage into relief. It ramps continuously, growing ever nearer, to the point where your eardrum feels like it wants to dislodge itself, when the final volley rings out and decays; the effect is so monumentally seismic, there’s acknowledging cheers and applause from the crowd, previously silent.

Looked at on paper, you might think that you could pre-emptively map out the peaks and troughs of a soundtrack to a football game, climaxes running up to goals or the outcomes of set pieces, but Mogwai tread different ground. They find moments of tension in the monotony of the game, teasing out eddies of suspense as Zidane makes minimal touches and passes. At one point, Zidane crosses the ball in to Roberto Carlos, setting up a goal, but the sonic fallout is silence: anticlimactic perhaps, but fitting - it’s only an equaliser and the satisfaction on the player’s face is short-lived.

The one moment, though, where incident and soundtrack unite as you’d expect is when Zidane is sent off after brawling with one of the opposing Villarreal players. Earlier in the film, in one of the subtitled quotes from Zidane, the footballer explains that he feels he can sometimes predict what will happen in a game the moment he steps out onto the pitch, and the band tap into this sense of pre-known teleology. The suspense this time builds from far off, way before the brawl looms into view, those razing, metallic tones hovering again, then growing continuously, gradually building into a total pummelling, Zidane’s flash of fury isolated, slowed down and stretched out. The sonic rage hangs in the air and slowly becomes disembodied, each member of the band leaving the stage until it’s just Cummings, manipulating his effects pedals, the entire Barbican auditorium held in the tremolo’ed grip of looped noise, decaying in gradation.

Finally, Cummings departs too, but the band return for a three-song encore. “We're gonna play some more songs, which is good, because it would be a bit weird if we came up, put our guitars on and then did poetry,” says Braithwaite, adding, “that would be a bit... challenging,” before launching into ‘Secret Pint’. They follow it with ‘Ex-Cowboy’, before a final performance of Ten Rapid’s ‘Helicon 1’, their searing, glorious crescendo, here not so much an all-trouncing force, but re-channelled into melody, rising up, viciously graceful, once more.

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