Avant post-rockers' third album ventures into the terrifying world of proper singing
It’s probably all part of their Blofeld-like masterplan, but a discussion of Mogwai always risks opening up a family-sized can of serpents. They spit insurrection and punk disgust, yet their music is beauty, emotion and sudden strings as far as the ear can hear. They are hyper-articulate bile machines, outspoken of their hatreds of everyone from Blur to the Queen and quick to run off
T-shirts as proof, yet the music they make is largely wordless. But really, their third album should completely obliterate all those arguments: every note of ‘Rock Action’ wins every fight they’ve ever started, touched with an imagination and awareness of the potential of sound that puts them so far up on the moral high ground they’re almost lost in the clouds.
Recorded (as was ‘Come On Die Young’) with Mercury Rev/Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, featuring David Pajo and Gruff Rhys on guest vocals, ‘Rock Action’ proves Mogwai’s status as British figureheads for that musical aesthetic that largely flourishes in North America.
Serious-minded, ambitious, unafraid of opacity, or creating a track that sounds like a medieval funeral march (the closing chill of ‘Secret Pint’), their successful existence challenges the view that the ‘underground’ is, ultimately, merely feeding-trough-fodder for the mainstream. It also has them challenging their own dynamic – if ‘Come On Die Young’ saw a thousand hyphens wasted on typing “quiet-loud-quiet”, then ‘Rock Action’ prefers “quiet-quiet-quiet”, only the stormy lowering of ‘You Don’t Know Jesus’ keeping that blueprint. It sees them move deeper [I]into[/I] the music, rather than concentrating on propulsive forward movement, lingering over textures, adventuring through sound. ‘Sine Wave’ has a core of electro-static; ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ mixes thready ‘O Superman’ vocodering with a banjo; vocals rise repeatedly through the noise, Stuart Braithwaite singing “What would you do if you saw spaceships over Glasgow?” on the frail early-hours malaise of ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’.
It’s interesting to see how the affinity between Mogwai and Super Furry Animals developed – not just because the Welsh-language ‘Dial:Revenge’ has the ailing
beauty of ‘Mwng’, Gruff lovely and lugubrious over a half-remembered folk song, but in the way Super Furry Animals insist singing in Welsh is a ‘politicised’
rather than ‘political’ statement.
So too is Mogwai’s music – a triumph of imagination over the cold dead hand of artistic orthodoxy. They might have their roots in the underground, but their minds are in the stars. Spaceships over Glasgow? Knowing what you do about this band, you wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.