It takes about five minutes while listening to Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 to realize that these surly bastards from Scotland calling themselves Mogwai are wholly uncompromising. “Hunted by a Freak”, leadoff track from 2003’s Happy Songs For Happy People, starts these proceedings as well and does so beautifully, as does the simple but affecting “New Paths to Helicon Pt. II”, but it’s not until the six-minute mark of “Like Herod”—six songs in—that a loud dissonant guitar chord strangulates the eardrum. If you know Mogwai, you were awaiting a hailstorm to come crashing down. It finally comes in an extended, 18-minute demonic freak-out version of “Like Herod” after what is essentially a 30-minute build-up. In all matters of song sequencing, this takes balls. Big ones. But this works remarkably well and is part of what makes this post-rock Glaswegian outfit so welcoming time and again, album after album. Displaying dexterity and a good dose of chutzpah, these recordings show a Mogwai still evolving right before our very eyes. And that’s pretty good for a band currently at work on their fifth full-length.
Government Commissions is 10 songs compiled from BBC Radio 1 sessions with the late John Peel (the album is in memory of him) and Steve Lamacq. Both DJs were proponents of the band from the very early on, and Peel’s introduction even opens this disc. But you don’t need their stamp of approval; one listen to the glorious, drop everything and listen to this “New Paths to Helicon Pt. I”—both first and second parts were originally titled “Helicon 1” and “Helicon 2” and can be found on 1997’s singles compilation Ten Rapid—and it’s easier to understand why people started listening in the first place. These songs at times tend to sound not unlike some wounded exotic beast, whether somnambulant (“Hunted by a Freak”, “Superheroes of BMX”) or one that will wake up and tear your large intestine out with its claws (see parts of “Like Herod” and “New Paths to Helicon Pt. I”).
Violent guitar outbursts aside, Mogwai have remained vocally unavailable for much of their career, but guitarist Stuart Braithwaite does a fine job with both “Cody” and “Secret Pint”. Both songs lend some needed balance to the track list; the two vocal tracks are even spread out over two sides the way a traditional rock band might spread out an instrumental interlude or two. (“R U Still In 2 It?” from 1998’s Young Team is performed here without vocals.) Fans of Rock Action’s brevity and layered, intricate song structure may feign disappointment, as it’s only represented here by “Secret Pint”, but it’s a minor quibble, really. The sheer joy of hearing “New Paths to Helicon Pt. I” glide effortlessly into “Stop Coming to My House” more than makes up for that. It’s a surprise still when you look at the accompanying press release and realize these two songs were tracked five years apart from one another.
The press release accompanying this record also states that Government Commissions is a greatest hits record of sorts, but this really is a love letter to Mogwai fans, some who feel the intensity of the band’s live performances have bettered their studio output. I mean, how else do you explain an 18-minute version of any song? A Mogwai fan letting a friend borrow Government Commissions as a primer is on some levels akin to giving your girlfriend Suitcase to listen to over the weekend because she wants a little Guided By Voices. But if reminding us how great a band can be is the purpose of any greatest hits record, than Government Commissions is it.