By: Eric Greenwood
With media culture catering to shorter and shorter attention spans, it's difficult for bands to justify songs that run triple the time of what is universally acceptable in the context of rock music; Mogwai not only thumbs its nose at such absurd notions but runs in the opposite direction, defying both expectation and tradition on its third album. The elements themselves are hackneyed and played out, but the execution is immediate and completely relevant. Mogwai makes listening to painfully slow rock a gripping experience, which is an art in and of itself. Long gone are the days when a band could get away with only a well-honed loud/soft dynamic. Entertainment is always the bottom line, and too many self-indulgent bands have made cynics out of the indie rock underground.
Mogwai is here to make the cynics sit up and beg. Rock Action is a bold title for such an experimental album. The band's thick, heady music envelops you in a haze of melody and languid riffage. Rock Action is far busier than any of the band's previous output, but it still subscribes to the Psychocandy-inspired philosophy of coating beauty with an uncomfortable and grating hiss. Vocals are also obviously more prominent in the band's sound. The songwriting focuses on song structure without caving in to any post-rock trappings. The goal is no longer to lull you to sleep only to blast you awake with a monstrous wave of distortion. The ebb and flow is much subtler on Rock Action, but the songs still all seem to trudge along at the same mesmerizing yet plodding tempo.
"Sine Wave" sounds like garbage the first time you hear it- like one of those artsy throwaway tracks comprised only of noise. It drones on almost five minutes full of static and distorted patterns. After four or five listens the song no longer sounds like aural masturbation but a carefully plotted exercise in tension- both beautiful and surreal. The song grows into an alarming and unnerving wall of sound with heavily masked voices that whisper underneath the electrical disturbances. "Take Me Somewhere Nice" couldn't sound more entreating after such an abrasive opener. The riff is quiet and familiar as a second guitar joins it in a slight variation. The keyboards are soothing and serene leading up to the droning feedback with slow, deadpan vocals, recalling Flying Saucer Attack at its finest.
Mogwai's sound effects are as essential as its riffs to the atmosphere of each song. The warped keyboard loop is not a new trick, but Mogwai incorporates it beautifully on the uncharacteristically brief "O I Sleep." With vocals having played such a minor part in the past, Mogwai displays a daunting command of them on Rock Action. "Dial.Revenge" showcases the band's latent penchant for sweeping orchestration and gorgeous harmonies. With differing arpeggios panned hard in each ear, Mogwai layers the song with faux-strings that climax with the foreign vocals. The cacophonous drone of "You Don't Know Jesus" bludgeons you into submission and threatens to show you the face of your creator through its sinewy guitars.
The epic track and centerpiece of the album is "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong." The straightforward rock introduction gives way to multiple horns and an antiquated organ sound. Coupled with vocoders, strings, and booming percussion the song bends in and out of aggression and surrender until a strange breakdown with banjos, electronic spurts, and radio static overwhelms the mix, carrying the song to its noisy conclusion. The relatively brief Rock Action concludes with "Secret Pint", a lovely piano driven coda with meek vocals and slight acoustic strumming.
Mogwai will undoubtedly confound both enemies and fans with this stylistic leap; although, I predict some of the naysayers will defect into the pro-camp with the newly prominent vocals. Rock Action sets out to defy and re-define rock music with rock music being its only tool. Whether or not it succeeds depends on the context in which you experience it. If you listen to it alone and on headphones you certainly will think that it does.