Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's Thunder and It's Lightning, And Where Are Your Manners? -- The Sound of (Modern) Young(ish) Scotland

For some reason--likely boiled down to the single word "Mogwai"--Scotland has managed to become an important source of music for me. There was nothing calculated or deliberate about it, as Mogwai simply drew me in with the 4 Satin EP, of all things, and particularly "Superheroes of BMX." I had legal access to most of their catalogue and ate through it quickly, following it to either end--the oldest and the newest, until eventually they were one of my ridiculously, excessively, obsessively collected bands. No, I didn't start looking for an original copy of "Tuner"/"Lower," but I did (digitally) track down everything I could. I was most excited about getting a copy of the expanded version of the creatively titled EP, now titled EP+6, as it included all of the original EP and two of their other extended plays, though ones with more thought-out titles, being 4 Satin and No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew).¹ The latter contains what I feel was their personal apex: "Xmas Steps."

Mogwai are probably best known for their early approach to dynamics, known colloquially as "loud-quiet-loud." They come from a group of bands collectively termed "post-rock" for their tendency toward unusual usage of rock instrumentation, not necessarily avoiding pop-style song structures, but playing the characteristic rock trio of instruments--guitar, bass, drums--in unusual ways, generally with a greater wash or wave of sound than even the riffs of harder rock. Often in almost orchestral or mood-oriented or anthemic, soundtrack-style fashion.² It also has a tendency to avoid prominent vocals--often lacking them entirely, or working through vocoders and samples. A slew of bands arose in the late '90s and early '00s under the auspice of "post rock," from Godspeed You Black Emperor! (later Godspeed You! Black Emperor--no, I'm not kidding) to Cerberus Shoal to Sigur Rós to the thousand splinter GYBE groups in Montreal (A Silver Mt. Zion, Do Make Say Think, et al.) on to Explosions in the Sky and many, many others. Mogwai come more from the "Slint" school of "post-rock," which tends toward the louder elements, the noise, the, somewhat ironically, "rock" elements.

Young Team, their debut long-player, is emblematic of the loud-quiet-loud approach, with the absolute ear-splitting crescendos of songs like "Like Herod," (which I once unintentionally scared the bejeezus out of someone with, as we all agreed I had the music turned down--then the loud bit hit) and "Mogwai Fear Satan" (a continuing concert staple much of the time).

"Xmas Steps," however, perfected the sound. It was re-recorded for their second album, Come on Die Young, but "Christmas Steps" hasn't got near the punch of "Xmas Steps," and it's almost a crime to listen to it instead. Indeed, it's almost as if the band agreed, as they soon nearly abandoned the loud-quiet-loud approach, separating the two moods into distinct songs, or avoiding one (usually "loud") entirely. While a few songs ("Glasgow Mega Snake" on Mr. Beast and "Batcat" on The Hawk Is Howling, especially) do still hit the major high (volume) notes, "Like Herod," "Mogwai Young Team" and "Xmas Steps" were perhaps the last to have such severely disparate dynamic ends in single songs, unless one counts the snarkily-released-as-a-single, 20 minute "Jewish Hymn," aka My Father, My King. I was lucky enough to be ridiculously weird and cobble together everything they recorded, as I mentioned, and put it in chronological order and listen to it in that fashion, meaning that, though I came to them after much material had been released, I heard "Xmas Steps" before "Christmas Steps."

Some people aren't aware the song was released in two different forms, and sadly "Christmas Steps" is far more readily available, which I call sad because there is little quite like the ominous, slow-burning crescendo that turns from a single-picked lick into neurotic down-strummed chords with an insistent bassline that gradually increase in volume until Martin Bulloch's drums drop in behind, and the song seems to kick into gear--until it suddenly drops distortion of the guitars and it becomes an absolute ROAR of guitar and drums, broken only by a whinging melody line sailing over the top. Then there's a precipitous drop back to jangling strum and thumping bass, until Luke Sutherland shimmers in on violin to bring in a new uptempo melody in over the now cooling guitars, as if a massive tidal wave had come in and dropped him off on a desolate beach alone.

But, you know, don't take my word for it (warning: this song is over eleven minutes long. But it's worth every second.):

Mogwai have been a favourite band of mine for some years, and that has led to the only road-trip concert I ever made, which was to Baltimore, MD in 2002 to see them with Miighty Flashlight opening (inexplicably weird and laidback music from early emo band Rites of Spring bassist Mike Fellows). I made a doofus of myself when I picked up the Mogwai/Bardo Pond split 10" and asked band "leader" (of a kind) Stuart Braithwaite to sign it. He did, said, "Cheers," and handed it back. Later I discovered they thought signing things is dumb. Oops. I lucked out: that show was the loudest one of theirs I ever saw. They played "Mogwai Fear Satan," "Xmas Steps," and "My Father, My King" all, and when I was thinking, "Gosh I'd really like to hear..." they even played "Ex-Cowboy," which, alongside Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" manages to capture the exact loping sort of sound that I associate with the awesome part of cowboys as mythologized in the United States.

From my own experience after Baltimore, and what friends have reported, hearing "Xmas Steps" is now a rarity: indeed, it's yelled out at every show I see, though they continue to not play it. The second show I went to, this time at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, they had The Growing for them, who kinda bored me, to be honest (though they do not hold a candle to my loathing for GY!BE openers Black Dice). My aforementioned manager Gerald came up to me the next day mouthing, "How was the show?" but I could hear him perfectly well--unlike the Baltimore show, which left my ears ringing for three days. Indeed, I'd heard the distortion start to distort somewhere in the middle of the show. In 2009, though, they came with The Twilight Sad.

This was a comparative revelation, though I hold some affection for Miighty Flashlight to this day. The Twilight Sad was like a natural extension or evolution of sounds like Mogwai's, but put to more normal songs, though affected by James Graham's distinct Glaswegian accent, which can occasionally make the un-printed lyrics of debut Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters difficult to discern. My favourite song in an all-around-excellent album is, without a doubt, "Cold Days in the Birdhouse." Whether James is singing about "willin' plans" or "woolen plants" is not made clear to my overly suspicious and second-guessing-prone ears even when sung in "busking" form with only guitarist Andy MacFarlane accompanying, on very quiet acoustic, letting James' powerful voice carry the songs almost a capella. The studio recording, though, has much more power, even when re-recorded and slowed a bit for the EP's worth of tweaked songs, Here, It Never Snowed. Afterwards It Did. The original is my preferred version, though they are proned to playing the Here, It Never Snowed version live now. Here is the original:

I can speak to the increased tendency toward the latter version, though, because shortly after they opened for Mogwai, they came out to The Local 506 and played a headliner at that smaller venue in Chapel Hill. It was an odd experience--the sound cut out partway through, which led drummer Mark Devine to angrily storm out past all of us in the crowd as Graham stood and apologized sincerely to us as the audience, but noted that this had happened in rehearsal as well and they were quite thoroughly upset about it. It was nice to see that the feeling that the band took their work seriously was there, but with Graham's sincere apology adding that they weren't just spiky, self-important jerks and wanted to do something for those of us there to listen, too. They were there to tour out their new album, Forget the Night Ahead, whose key song for me was eventually a single, "Seven Years of Letters":

In any case, as has happened a few times, I looked into their opener as I had done The Sad themselves,³ and found We Were Promised Jetpacks, yet another Scottish band, though, in somewhat exceptional fashion they come from Edinburgh instead of Glasgow or one of its suburbs. This puts them in the company of Josef K, which is nothing to sneeze at, but isn't quite the expected relative, musically. Josef K were, as one would expect from referencing Kafka, relatively dour, cynical, sarcastic, and downbeat, even when uptempo. That would come closer to The Sad, of course, where We Were Promised Jetpacks reeks of youth and optimism and hope, possibly indicative of their comparative youth. Goodness, I think they're even younger than me, albeit in terms of only a handful of years--or possibly none, but I have that impression from somewhere--but maybe that's just back to the music.

Adam Thompson has no airs about him at all, and simply comes off, either live or in studio, as simply recording songs with his band, in vocal terms. Everyone else shows similar energy, and interest, it seems, in simply being in a band they can be proud of. It's a different vibe and spirit, and was a lovely foil to The Sad--though the immediate openers, the English-ish band Brakes, aka Brakesbrakesbrakes for legal reasons, were even brighter and full-on poppier, and truly excellent as well, but this is about Scottish music. These Four Walls, their debut is full of pounding pseudo-post-rock pop songs, powered by solid beats and thumping basslines.

A favourite (sometimes I can manage to call singles, which always makes me just a bit happy), is "Roll Up Your Sleeves":

The interesting part is going back to find all the once-popular Scottish bands I'd never heard of now that the new school seems to be interesting, like Josef K, Orange Juice, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, or Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian and even Bis. Or realizing how many classic artists and performers snuck out of Glasgow: Angus and Malcolm Young, Mark Knopfler, Donovan, Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy/Motörhead, and Gerry Rafferty, for instance.

The frustrating part, though, is watching a bunch of people I know pick up these bands after I've been pushing them for a few years. Let this be a lesson: if I ever mention a band and you feel the desire to pass it over, do not choose these two (or three). They are truly excellent, interesting and unique in their ways.

I think a little live-flavoured WWPJ would do nicely, so let's close with that, too:

Oh! And We Were Promised Jetpacks also did the "busking" performances.

¹The title refers to a legal curfew for minors in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

²The term "post rock" is derided by a number of bands associated with it, and, while I've championed the "genre" (such as it is) for many years, it's one of the sillier terms around. On a concrete level, it makes sense, as it takes a "rock band" and puts them to different usage, while maintaining the essential components of a rock band. But it's a bit pretentious and stupid alongside that, and it's hard to figure out where one begins and the other stops.

³This is actually how I discovered Doomtree, my personal hip-hop pantheon, but we'll talk about that some other time, too.

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