Rock Action by Mogwai (Review)

Mogwai change up their sound a bit with more emphasis on vocals, to excellent results.
Rock Action - Mogwai

Since garnering critical praise from the indie community with 1997’s explosively dynamic Young Team, Mogwai has managed to make a name for themselves while showing a healthy sense of uniqueness. Moves on the band’s part have included the now-infamous “Blur: Are Sh*te” t-shirts in 1999, and their twenty-minute live offering titled “My Father My Kingdom,” which was based upon a traditional Hebrew hymn. After supporting the Manic Street Preachers on tour in September 1998, Mogwai allegedly wrote Manic’s bassist Nicky Wire a thank-you note for giving them the chance to alienate so many fans. You can’t blame them for being boring, I guess!

While no one could really question Mogwai’s unique sense of creativity outside of their music, the music itself was sometimes a different matter. The nearly eighty-minute sprawl that was 1999’s Come On Die Young was incredibly uneven. Aside from a couple of standout tracks (“Christmas Steps” in particular), listening to the entire album today is tiring. The dynamics and abrasiveness that marked Mogwai’s earlier work practically disappeared in place of, well, not much. Things picked up with the release of EP+2 later that year. The alienating song structures were mostly replaced with beauty. Songs like “Stanley Kubrick” and “Burn Girl Prom Queen” were both brilliant in focus, using orchestration and melodies to great effect.

Rock Action picks up where EP+2 left off, and some promising changes have been made. The entire album clocks in at 38:34, which is a complete 180 from Come On Die Young. The second major change is that vocals are actually present on several tracks. Stuart Braithwaite has a decent, though rather subdued, voice. On “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” he muses about spaceships over Glasgow — a fitting lyric given the epic nature of the background music. His lyrics are nearly incomprehensible on “Secret Pint,” but the piano and simple guitar strumming overshadow everything else (including the odd song title, taken from a band anecdote about an inebriated friend).

“Dial: Revenge” is yet another highlight. Vocals are supplied by Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys in Welsh. You can’t understand a single word — given his lyrics in SFA songs, there’s no telling what the subject matter is — but the music is, again, gorgeously epic. The melodies throughout the entire album prove to be catchy without being trite; the orchestration and overall vision of each song is unquestionably good.

One of the only remnants of Mogwai’s traditional roots is found in the album’s centerpiece, “You Don’t Know Jesus.” Guitars build up slowly to a bracing, chaotic passage before dying down and stretching endlessly, leading to the song’s eight-minute length. While it’s a great song, the band’s new direction was much-needed, and they’ve managed to successfully deflect the constant comparisons to Slint for the time being. Mogwai accomplished a lot without sacrificing an ounce of integrity of creative focus. In today’s musical landscape, that accounts for a lot. Strongly recommended.

Written by Chris Martin.