Burning (Rock Action, 2010)
by Mogwai / Vincent Moon & Nat Le Scouarnec

I recently showed Burning to a room full of people, most of whom had never given much thought to the Scottish band Mogwai or to post-rock, the genre to which a decade of imprecise taxonomy insists Mogwai belong. The effect was much like the first time I saw the Japanese post-rock band Mono play, in a church basement in Connecticut in 2003: the set began wordlessly and to general indifference, started to crescendo slowly over various ongoing conversations, grew into a raging squall of finely wrought noise, and ended, about eight minutes later, to complete, stunned silence.

In the case of Burning, that shell-shocked moment comes only after the second song, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” which leads off Mogwai’s sixth album, The Hawk Is Howling. (The first number, before the title is displayed, amounts to a sort of visual soundcheck.) It’s a chilling song and a terrific example of how post-rock, at its best, stalks and closes in on its prey: it opens as a slight cluster of unresolved piano notes, and builds calmly, methodically, into a chorus of buzzsaw guitars playing a single simple refrain. After a while it ends. Structural intricacy is not what Mogwai do best, or at all; “post-rock” as used to denote long and essentially linear compositions that substitute quiet-loud dynamics for words tends to mean the band takes after Mogwai. “Jim Morrison” has no surprises, but it gathers, surges and recedes while sustaining a fierce sense of drama.

The best part about Burning, filmed in Brooklyn in 2009 by Vincent Moon and Nat Le Scouarnec, videographers for the concert website La Blogothèque, is how naturally it visualizes that drama. Mogwai can be mischievous, as when they teeter without warning from soporific twinkle to thunderous doom-stomp, and so can the film: sometimes, when the drums enter at a climactic moment, the cameras land on the drummer a few beats late. During a false ending in the set’s last song, “Batcat,” the credits begin to roll, then disappear instantly once the song thrashes back to life.

To their credit, Moon and Le Scouarnec seem utterly uninterested in capturing the visceral experience of being in the audience. Their allegiance is to each song’s cliffhanger moments and dynamic contortions, and they expertly tailor their sumptuous black-and-white shots to its calm, its savagery, or its transitions between the two. (“Scotland’s Shame,” somehow, is filmed like a Western.) Some frames linger longer than they should, fixating on a single chink in the wall of sound, a bass cadence or a guitar texture; conversely, the jumpiest cuts emphasize how long the same chord is liable to be held, taut, for some master purpose. The band’s stately noisemongering is direct but not crude, and Burning pays exquisite visual attention to its concealed fulcrums and cantilevers.

If anything is missing, it’s more of Mogwai’s archest audacities. To wit, the film shows only one screeching chorus of “Like Herod,” which on 1997’s Young Team is almost twelve minutes long and nearly prankish in its volume extremes, but none of the tiptoeing suspense and jagged feedback that frame it. This is a pity not because it neglects the larger compositional context of the song, but because the directors could easily have gotten away with more, playing the band’s trademark cat-and-mouse games with light and shadow instead of noise. As it is, Burning is content to let your attention wander away now and then, as are Mogwai: both the film and the band have a preternatural instinct, humbling and sometimes chilling, about exactly when and where you will rivet back, helpless and rapt.