"Mogwai have done with the post-rock schtick!" blazed a Times Square neon monstrosity near the penthouse offices of Matador Records. Okay, so the cheeky hype was actually a stray sentence buried in an early draft of the Glaswegian band's latest label bio. But a telling and heroic statement just the same, as revealing as the album title is ironic.
The Mogwai fan base, patiently biding time since the group issued its first single five years ago, in March '96, has calmly (if with a steadily heightening feeling of anticipation) soaked up numerous singles, EPs, remix projects and two double-length albums. Rock Action arrives, then, as a penultimate culmination of those expectations, and not for nothing is the title a signifier; Rock Action was the name of Mogwai's homegrown indie label, and it was also both an Iggy Pop lyric and the nickname of Stooges drummer Scott Asheton.
Like Mogwai's 1999 epic Come On Die Young, the album was recorded up in the hinterlands of New York state with studio auteur Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) again manning the controls and serving as a virtual sixth member. Rock Action is joined to its predecessor not so much stylistically as psychically by way of two movements heard on Come On Die Young, the title track's dreamy, melodic swoon, and the grand waltzing orchestra of "Chocky," both of which can now be seen as very clear forecasts of where the band's directional compass would soon be pointing. (Keen-eared observers won't fail to note another connection: The '99 effort opened with an extended sample of Iggy Pop on a talk show elucidating the primal effect punk rock has upon him.)
Yet the difference between the albums -- for there is one, perhaps subtly felt at first but crucial just the same, beyond the fact that Rock Action clocks in at a mere 39 minutes -- is similar to the before-and-after of the Beatles' pilgrimage to the Maharishi in Rishikesh. Having experienced all that post-rock has to offer (and let's face it, the term "post-rock" is now as meaningless as "alternative" except to marketing staffs), Mogwai's viewpoint is refracted through permanently altered lenses. With that comes the expectation that the rest of the world's senses may be heightened as the general populace, too, begins to note the transcendence. Seismic, influential shifts in musical temperament aren't unheard of in this biz, of course; what's rare is to detect them while they are happening. As the record seamlessly unfolds and flows like a single bolt of thick velvet softly tumbling down a staircase, extraordinary musical sequences of undeniable uniqueness in both emotional timbre and sonic heft begin to practice their magic upon the listener.
The album begins with a shimmery, hissing instrumental overture ("Sine Wave") which quickly cedes to a Morricone-esque meditation ("Take Me Somewhere Nice") whose orchestral passages and hushed, yearning vocals are deeply romantic, profoundly cinematic. A minimalist, plinky piano/backward effects 56-second segue then sets the stage for the album's subtle masterpiece; "Dial: Revenge," with its rich scrim of winnowing keyboards and swaying strings, peripatetic fretboard meanderings and sweet choirlike harmonies (which include contributions from Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, singing in Welsh), suggests no less than George Martin conducting the Phil Spector Orchestra 2001. And later, when the album's other standout tune rolls up, a nine-minute, horns-and-Mellotron-laden soundscape (also the sole number bearing the once-traditional Mogwaigian massed-crescendo signature), it's not a slab of psych-for-psych's-sake aimless jamming but an entire new daydream nation's worth of forward-looking bold grandeur. The track is called "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong," and if you peer long enough at that title, you'll eventually detect the pun that signposts Mogwai's new dimension(s) in sound.
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Quips vocalist/guitarist Stuart Braithwaite in the Matador press kit mentioned previously, "We've moved away from the sackcloth of old. There's a lot of bands at the moment making the kind of music we've already made. We needed to do something different. The whole album is peppered with spastic magic." Which is certainly true; no doubt angels, fairies and perhaps the fabled 'gwai creatures themselves slipped into the Fridmann compound at night while the band slept off its recording sessions. But it must be said, pop heresy be damned: Rock Action is so monumentally magisterial, its musical alchemy signifies it as no less than the post-post-rock era's Sgt. Pet Sounds' Lonely Hearts Club Band. And that's no hype.