With a title borrowed from punk iconoclast Iggy Pop, one might
Rock Action to be a bombastic four-chord assault; a lean,
mean, rock 'n' roll machine mined from the marrow of the legendary
Stooges leader. But even a cursory listen reveals quite the opposite,
an album of syrup-slow, mysterious beauty that unfolds like uncharted
topography and revels in endless layers of orchestral texture.
Wave hello to Mogwai, the only post-rock band with a sense of humor.
Or maybe they're not kidding. "Call us an art-rock punk band," leader
Stuart Braithwaite once told Vanity Fair, adding that punk
"has never been about tradition." So defined, punk music may sound
like anything so long as it adheres to a singular goal: reanimating
the corpse of corporate rock by any means necessary.
In 1995, when four teenagers from the Glasgow suburbs formed Mogwai,
commercial corpse in question was Britpop, and the band's chosen method
of resuscitation was simple shock therapy. Employing a brutal dual
guitar assault reinforced with white noise, Mogwai shoved a sonic
stake through the heart of Oasis' jangly Beatle-chords and reintroduced
the U.K. to controlled chaos, much as their heroes My Bloody Valentine
had done at the beginning of the decade.
Have Mogwai finally stepped
into the sunlight?
After a series of singles, in 1997 the band recorded their first
full-length effort for the independent label Chemikal Underground
(owned by fellow Glaswegian art rockers, the Delgados). Young
Team, the result of fractious sessions marked by intense
internecine feuding, was an amazing debut album, a modern masterpiece
of tension-and-release that reinvigorated rock's venerable quiet-LOUD
dynamic for the first time since 1991's Nevermind. Unlike
Nirvana, however, which was driven by Kurt Cobain's ragged vocal
melodies, Mogwai sculpted wrenching emotion out of purely instrumental
Young Team's "Yes I am a Long Way from Home" asked, via
a vocal sample, whether it was possible for music "to put a human
being in a trance-like state," before answering its own question
with a hypnotic bass riff, droning accordion wheezes and interlocking
guitars. But before U.K. club kids could get comfortable amidst
the dizzying swirl of chiming 6-strings, the song exploded into
a fuzz-drenched hurricane, ripping into unsuspecting eardrums with
savage abandon. As a reverent whisper at the beginning of Young
Team notes: "If the stars had sound, they would sound like this."
After a lineup change that added multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns
to the fold (Braithwaite and John Cummings on guitar, Dominic Atchkinson
on bass, and Martin Bulloch on drums), Mogwai linked up with esteemed
indie producer David Fridmann to record 1999's double-album Come
On Die Young. Numerous forces conspired to widen Mogwai's
musical vision. Holed up in a remote location in upstate New York
with nothing but Mad Dog 20/20 to comfort their livers, they worked
relentlessly on the album to avoid going stir crazy. Burns' one-man-band
abilities expanded Mogwai's tonal palette, adding trombone, flute
and glockenspiel to the group's previously guitar-dominated soundscapes.
Fridmann introduced string accompaniment and digital manipulation,
and invited the band to experiment with computer-based recording.
The result was a dense, difficult work that eschewed the emotionally
satisfying peaks and valleys of the first LP; Come On Die Young
was the black hole to Young Team's supernova. Unlike previous
efforts, the band seemed satisfied to let songs ebb and flow naturally,
without the jolts of distorted violence. But the album's enigmatic
nature left many fans confused, and critics insisted that the group
had worn out its formula and its welcome.
Action, Mogwai's third proper album (not including a collection
of early singles, two EPs and a double-disc set of remixes), comes
at a pivotal point. As they struggle to remain relevant, two major
obstacles stand in Mogwai's way. The first is the inherent limitation
of their sound: Because they avoid typical pop forms and vocals,
their complex instrumentals risk sounding like New Age muzak for
the post-shoegazer set. The second obstacle is a changing musical
climate. When they first burst onto the scene, grunge wannabes ruled
the world, and Mogwai's interstellar scope was a revelation. But
the past five years have heard an art-rock renaissance led by Oxford's
Radiohead, whose mind-blowing transformation on 1997's OK Computer
and 2000's Kid A could be compared to the Beatles' evolution
between Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's. Radiohead signaled
that rock wasn't dead after all, and heralded the arrival of sonic
voyagers like Reykjavik's Sigur Rós, who offer a genuine
challenge to Mogwai's epic-rock throne.
So Mogwai must evolve. Rock Action is both a change in direction
and an extension of the sound they have crafted over the course
of their career. "Sine Wave," the opening track, is emblematic of
the band's dual tendencies on this disc. The simple guitar line
that introduces the song recalls moments on Come On Die Young,
but the percussion, made entirely of static (reminiscent of Mark
Bell's programming on Bjšrk's Homogenic), are a radical addition
to the Mogwai aesthetic. A variety of inventive tones, from digitally
tweaked bass to heavily filtered vocals, enter the mix layer by
layer until the song attains an oppressive girth that threatens
to crush the listener between his headphones. But just as the song's
climax looms menacingly, a storm of gathering static arrives and
washes over the entire ensemble, obscuring the mix in a dense fog
of radio fuzz.
The addition of live vocals on four songs is the most obvious innovation
on Rock Action, and the results are mixed. Braithwaite claims
the band's instrumental leanings were shaped by the fact that none
of them could write decent lyrics, and "Take Me Somewhere Nice"
demonstrates that they weren't being modest. "What would you
do ... if you saw spaceships?" Braithwaite coos over the uterine
thrum of Atchkinson's bass and a restrained string quartet. The
music is gorgeous, but the generic vocals, reminiscent of second-hand
shoegazers like Starflyer 59 and slo-mo rockers the Red House Painters,
weaken the overall effect.
On "Dial:Revenge," Mogwai enlist a guest singer, Gruff Rhys of
the Super Furry Animals. The vocals (in Welsh) are effectively elegiac
as they curl around melancholy acoustic guitars, and the sense of
loss in Rhys' voice is reinforced by a haunting background vocal
that invokes Enya without sounding the least bit lame. "Robot Chant"
is a brief industrial interlude that conjures up images of a Terminator-factory
churning out steel Schwarzenegger-skeletons. It's a disposable effort,
but sounds remarkably fresh following "You Don't Know Jesus," a
Mogwai-by-numbers track composed of iceberg-crisp riffs nicked from
the files of Young Team.
Fortunately, two incredible compositions follow this brief misstep.
"2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" begins with a simple major chord vamp stolen
from Hootie's golf bag, then twists it slowly into knots before
submerging the tune in a cleansing pool of big-band brass, splashing
cymbals and yearning strings. Halfway through the song, a vocoder-warped
vocal appears and winds its way around a bit of gentle drum 'n'
bass, creating a mutant strain of modern computer-funk. By the time
a banjo enters and leads the song off into the moonset, the listener
is stunned into submission by Mogwai's deep-as-the-Atlantic production.
After such an epic, "Secret Pint" finishes the album off with a
flawless display of restraint. The best Braithwaite performance
of the album, the vocal is simultaneously sweet and sad as he intones,
"Go so scared, falling down."
Mogwai have been called "the first band of the 21st century" for
their ability to fashion grand symphonies from simple sonic components.
And yet their unconventional approach to rock 'n' roll strikes some
listeners as cold and aloof, obfuscating emotional connection in
favor of art-punk attitude. Can faceless sonic architects overcome
rock's cult of personality with consummate craftsmanship alone?
Rock Action is a line drawn tentatively between cult and
craft--the sound of a band letting its guard down for the first
time--and it's a beautiful thing.
Evan Endicott is a music writer based in Evanston, Illinois.
He can be reached at