Blood streams from bruised fingers, ragged strings hang from shaking guitars and still the volume increases. Half the band are kneeling on the floor, half are assaulting their amps. Sweat flicks from their heads, and the white-noise howl threatens to engulf the venue and everyone in it. It’s an astonishing finale. Except it’s not. You see, it being Mogwai, this is the start of the gig: a psychotic ultra-metallic version of ‘Like Herod’, and a perfect way to introduce themselves to the people of Preston. It’s also a brutal demonstration of just why they’re 1997’s most radical musical force. Superficially, what we’re witnessing isn’t the height of originality. It’s music with an obvious lineage, one that begins with the stark emotions of Joy Division and snakes through the late-’80s guitar-distortion of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 (whom they pay tribute to tonight with a cover of ‘Honey’).
There’s nothing here that intrinsically separates them from a hundred other of their wilfully inaccessible post-rock counterparts. The difference, however, is that Mogwai realise that simply owning (and replicating) those records isn’t enough. Which is why, for all their experimental pretensions (their set tonight is almost entirely instrumental) at heart Mogwai remain a classic rock’n’roll band. It’s there in everything they do: from the Zeppelin-esque heaviness of their drums through to the adrenalised gear-changes of their guitars, it’s even there in the gang connotations of their album title, ‘Young Team’. But most important of all, Mogwai are not conscientious objectors to the idea of performing. In fact, their prevailing attitude towards guitar abuse is thankfully more MC5 than Stereolab. And that’s equally true, whether they’re negotiating their way through the gonzoid cacophony of ‘Stereo D’ or the more gentle, melodic repetition of ‘A Place For Parks’ or ‘Angels Versus Aliens’.
The idea that the band stubbornly cling to throughout is that their gigs should be entertaining rather than educational, chaotic rather than incompetent and, above all else, defiantly confident – and the sudden departure of Brendan O’Hare has done nothing to alter that. Even though many of their songs come to a fuzzed-out conclusion that’s met with confused applause, and halfway through someone yells, “You sound like fucking Ride!!” (in fact, they don’t look at their feet once!), Mogwai press on regardless. Their final three songs are a masterclass in controlled noise; the sound of ‘Psychocandy’-era Mary Chain colliding with the monotony of Neu!. As the original version of ‘Summer’ fades into the symphonic harmonies of ‘Helicon 1’, it becomes clear that Mogwai are rapidly assuming the status of their heroes.
Such is the alternating beauty and ferocity of these songs, and such is the passion with which they’re performed that the band’s two remaining gigs this year have every chance of being the equal of, say, MBV on the 1991 Rollercoaster tour or Spiritualized at the Royal Albert Hall this year. They finish as they began. Strobe lights flash, a photo of Hiroshima disappearing under a mushroom cloud is projected behind them, and Mogwai bulldoze their way through 15 minutes of oscillating noise. More strings are torn from guitars, sheets of juddering distortion appear then are immediately swept away. Finally, the whole band is left crouched on the floor as the final notes of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ echo around. This time, it really is an astonishing finale.