Special Moves

(Rock Action; 2010)

By Conrad Amenta | 10 January 2011

As much as for their well-established formula of instrumental rock and extreme dynamics, Mogwai are known for the intense volume of their live shows—an experience more bodily, really, than cerebral, of the same pant-leg-flapping school of live show as My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized. But Special Moves highlights two things that seem to perpetually hem this band in. First, that the simplicity of arrangements on recent records Mr. Beast (2006) and The Hawk is Howling (2008) have turned them to schmaltz and easy pandering, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” or “Batcat” rendering in stark relief the degree to which this band now relies on ominous piano strikes or cartoon, metal riffs. And second, that the limitations of the recorded medium keep so much dynamic contrast as just that. There’s nothing physical or immediate about listening to a Mogwai record, and how could there be? The stacked amps are as integral now as any of the band’s other defining features, and can’t be anything but missing, and so a live Mogwai album is doomed to insufficiency from the start. No wonder it’s taken them more than a decade to attempt it.
I’ve felt the sound bounce off the rear wall of a club and push me from behind, seen the plastic divider on a balcony ledge vibrate so that the air above it was distorted, and some poor soul on drugs appear as if his eyes were about to burst out of his skull, and I’ve become desensitized to all of it. Each time I’ve seen the band I experienced a little bit less of the novelty that such sheer volume entails. Of course, listening to Special Moves in ear buds while riding a bus won’t return the appreciation. Even such a complete package as this—a representative (if not exhaustive) track list, a tastefully shot black-and-white live DVD, and a lossless audio download—only illustrates the degree to which all of the available permutations of content can’t replicate the real thing. Which is to say, the first time you saw Mogwai live.
Worse, perhaps, is how listening to each of the two thin versions of, say, “Hunted by a Freak,” makes one wonder just what this live experience is all about, and how diminishing its returns have become. Watching Mogwai is like an amusement park ride. You don’t pause to admire the design of the rollercoaster; you’re on the ride in order to experience ever-escalating rushes of adrenaline. Mogwai’s act has become a series of cycles from quiet clunk to extreme noise. All of which is to say that a document like this points out that the nuances of Mogwai’s best album—I insist it’s Rock Action (2001), because it, better than any other, balanced the extremes and branched out in its song craft—have been abandoned in favor of the dumb excess of 1997’s perpetually-praised “Like Herod,” which, on the band’s debut no less, took this formula to its no-brainer conclusion. The forthcoming Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will will keep to the tired dichotomy of funny titles and loud riffing, and the live show will continue to sell the brand, but Special Moves illuminates the band’s act for what it is.
All that said, the album and DVD are beautifully produced, as technically sound an article as any might have been. It can’t have been easy to distill the band’s immensity in a package that maintains their ear for melody and inexorable pacing, even if it can’t help but fall short of total ear assault. The still addictive “New Paths to Helicon Part 1,” and “Mogwai Fear Satan” sound fantastic here, having a kinetic energy lacking in the original recordings, and the album is far superior to the band’s other less-than-essential live album, the compilation of BBC sessions Government Commissions (2005). Also, the vinyl version comes with extra tracks well worth the dough, especially “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home” and “New Paths.” What with all my caveats, it should still be said that, until Mogwai write better material, Special Moves is about as good as this kind of album could possibly be, barring some third disc that might have contained the twenty minute “My Father My King.” But if you, like me, are looking for an album to reinvigorate your interest in the band, or make sense of their most recent material, this isn’t it.