Home Read Classic Album Review: Mogwai | Rock Action

Classic Album Review: Mogwai | Rock Action

The Scottish post-rockers tinker with their formula — and manage to improve it.

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


A Mogwai album named after one of The Stooges would seem to make about as much sense as a Pink Floyd disc titled Wayne Kramer.

The fact is, these Scottish post-rock guitar-noise alchemists don’t rock. At least not in the traditional sense. And their first two albums were anything but action-packed. Both 1997’s Mogwai Young Team and 1999’s Come on Die Young were headphone discs of the first order — mind-bending avant-garde instrumental soundscapes jury-rigged from equal parts ambient guitar symphonics, shimmering supernova feedback and spastic, free-form chaos, all ebbing and flowing at the glacial pace of plate tectonics. But this curiously titled third album — which was, at various times, called Watch Out, You Slut, Exorcist III and Public Notice: Unattended Children Will Be Sold as Slaves — finds the five-man, three-guitar outfit changing the secret herbs and spices in the recipe:

Change the First: The tracks are shorter. Or at least feel shorter. (Come on Die Young had 12 cuts and lasted nearly 70 minutes. Rock Action has eight in just 38 minutes. OK, that’s still about five minutes per cut. But for Mogwai — whose songs can last up to half an hour live — five minutes is like an intro.) More importantly, they’re tighter and more structured. Rock Action seems to consist of songs with beginnings, ends and a path between them, rather than rambling movements strung together. This is a good thing. Less, as they say, is more.

Change the Second: The guitar-guitar-guitar lineup has been augmented with horns, violins and even banjo, giving these songs some extra — and more organic — textures. This, too, is good. More, as they say, can also be more.

Change the Third (and the Largest): Vocals. And plenty of ’em. Some straight, like the lulling tones of Take Me Somewhere Nice. Some completely unintelligible, like the Venusian squiggles on Sine Wave. Some from band members like Stuart Braithwaite. Some from guest vocalists like Super Furry AnimalsGruff Rhys (Dial: Revenge). But make no mistake, there are actual human voices on a Mogwai record. This is a very, very good thing. Finally, you can actually tell one song from another without having to keep one eye glued to the CD changer display.

Naturally, there are some who will not think these are good things, who will complain that Mogwai have sold out, given in, watered down their sound. Well, yes and no. All the familiar touchstones are still in place on Rock Action — the dreamy arpeggios, the floating melodies, the crawling, trancy melodies that suddenly rachet into star-crunch overdrive like a big syringe full of adrenaline right in the heart. But this time, Mogwai have definitely taken it to a new dimension. If their first two discs showed what they can do, Rock Action shows what they can do with it.