How many people have walked out of great concerts saying something like, “Wow, I wish they’d make a live album”? The perverse, hidden truth of that idea is that no live album can ever live up to the experience that just impressed you so much. Live albums work as souvenirs for the faithful and sometimes as introductions for the novice. But anyone who has seen Mogwai live and had the top of his head peeled off by its rendition of “Mogwai Fear Satan”, anyone who left that concert wishing that Mogwai’s studio albums lived up to the sheer furious Ragnarok of the band’s live presence is exactly the kind of person most likely to find Special Moves a bit underwhelming.
Which doesn’t make the band’s first proper live album, following on the fine but similarly slightly unsatisfying BBC Sessions compilation Government Commissions, a bad example of the form. Here Mogwai is nothing less than judicious, drawing a track or two from each of its albums and adroitly presenting its entire discography as the consistently fine output of a band always in control of its own sound. For those of us who discounted The Hawk Is Howling, the version of “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” that starts us off here is revelatory. They hit some of the biggest, fan favourite peaks in the form of “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” (although the immortally great “New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1” is restricted to vinyl, downloads, and the accompanying DVD). Their selections from the unjustly neglected Mr. Beast—an imperious “Friend of the Night” and a set-closing “Glasgow Megasnake” that serves as proof that these guys have never mellowed—ably explain why that album stands with Mogwai’s best.
But Mogwai live, when you’re actually in the room with the group, is a physical force in a way unmatched by almost any other band; the versions here don’t really get at why it is that the first time I heard “Friend of the Night” live, it immediately became one of my favourite songs by Mogwai, or how the immodestly epic “My Father My King” (not included here) can absolutely raze a room to the ground, or just the way that the band is as much ordeal as entertainment. Mogwai is punishing live, but punishingly transcendent, and there’s no way to reproduce not just the scale of its sound, but its effect on a digital download, CD, or LP. When we say, “Why can’t they have taped that show we just saw?,” what we really mean is, “I want some way to have that experience again,” and the simple fact is that you can’t do it. Bands that don’t wield noise and space as ably and devastatingly as Mogwai do have an easier time with live albums, but to do the Glaswegian quintet justice, you’d have to put out a live album in surround sound at immense volume, immersing the listener in what it sounded like in the actual room.
Burning, the Vincent Moon concert documentary included in most versions of Special Moves, accomplishes the difficult task of putting us some ways towards being back in that room. Like Moon’s other music films, it’s not straight concert footage, or anything else: it’s part travelogue, part crowd documentary, part performance fetishization, part rhapsody. When the whole crowd yells at once as a song fully kicks in, you feel for a second not the direct power of the band’s performance, but that power reflected in the crowd’s reaction; that moment on a truly gorgeous version of “New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1” is enough to justify the DVD, while the rest of the film’s 45 minutes amply demonstrates why Mogwai is such a great live band. If Special Moves itself can’t quite demonstrate the same fact, it comes as close as any album is likely to.
- "Batcat" (Burning version) MySpace
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