“I’m gonna take satisfaction/I’m gonna get rock action”
— Iggy Pop, “Rock Action”
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Mogwai return with their third full length LP and contrary to rumour, half—truth and willful disinformation the new record is called Rock Action (working titles have included Exorcist III, Public Notice: Unattended Children Will Be Sold As Slavesâ and Pardon Our Dust As We Grow To Serve You Better.) Rock Action comes two years after the groundbreaking and magnificent Come On Die Young.
Rock Action cuts a very different cloth to that of old. Mogwai have done with the double albums, done with the post rock schtick. Rock Action sees a considerable leap in the songwriting talent of the band — including, for the first time, significant contributions from Barry Burns (Burns joined at the tail end of the CODY sessions). This is a group simultaneously focused and unhinged, as rooted in tradition as they are compelled to refute conventional practice. They’re just as likely to stroke your head as mess with it, but they’ll do that too, because they can and because it’s necessary. Mogwai love rock, but take offense at so much of what calls itself "rock." All of which begins to explain how Mogwai come to be where they are at this very moment: poised to release a record titled Rock Action.
Some Mogwai history: Formed in 1995 by Stuart Braithwaite (guitar) and Dominic Aitchison (bass), soon to be joined by Martin Bulloch (drums) and John Cummings (guitar), and much later Barry Burns (see below) First gig at the 13th Note in Glasgow. First single ‘Tuner’/‘Lower’ released on band’s own Rock Action label, March 1996. Three more singles appear during the next 12 months, each for a different label, each heightening the sense that here was a band unafraid of aiming high and then reaching higher, beyond the parochial definitions of what young men playing guitars are supposed to achieve. Emerging into a world suffocating in the creative halitosis of that thing known as Britpop, Mogwai were unapologetic about their ambition, unafraid to believe they could make records as great as those that had ennobled their musical salad days — The Velvet Underground And Nico, Closer, Isn’t Anything... Mogwai served notice that it was still OK to feel, still OK to believe that music wasn’t a matter of life or death — but rather something far more important than that.
1997 saw the release of Ten Rapid, a user—friendly compilation of the preceding 12 months’ singles, priming the public for the giant steps that were to come. First "4 Satin," the band’s debut release for esteemed Glasgow independent label Chemikal Underground, featuring three songs of absolute and intense degree. Then the debut full—length Mogwai Young Team. A staggering statement of intent, a record filled with wordless songs of love and hate and devotion, it seemed the only flaw in its immaculate design was: How to do better next time?
But such are the perils of an external perspective. Mogwai themselves dismissed Mogwai Young Team almost as soon as it was released. The recording sessions had been rushed, they claimed. Intimations of a fractious atmosphere in the studio — alluded to on the record itself by the song "Tracy" — were seemingly borne out by the departure in bizarre circumstances of auxiliary noisemaker Brendan O’Hare, who had joined earlier that year in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. With the benefit of hindsight, 1997 was Mogwai’s year of living dangerously, embracing the rock beast...and surviving. They resolved to never leave anything to chance again.
In summer 1998 came a new EP, the combatively titled "No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew)," a hard—but—fair comment on the so—called Labour government’s enlightened attitude towards urban deprivation as imposed upon the teenagers of the band’s native Lanarkshire. So potent a doomed youth anthem was lead track "Christmas Steps" that it caught the eye of the Manic Street Preachers, who invited Mogwai as support on their autumn enormodome jaunt. For the Manics it was a chance to vicariously relive their splenetic past. For Mogwai it was a chance to scare the shit out of several thousand people every night. In Wales, Dominic showed the unappreciative hordes his arse: "It was the biggest cheer we got on the whole tour," he remembered.
In November Mogwai departed Glasgow to record a new album, with a new secret weapon in the ranks: Barry Burns, wit, raconteur and all round instrumental utility man. Give Barry a horn and he’ll blow it, hand him a flute and he’ll toot it, and you don’t even want to know how he treats guitars. With Barry’s generous contributions to the fore, Mogwai’s second album Come On Die Young could hardly fail. Released in March 1999, it proved the band justified in their criticisms of its predecessor, and the point was emphasized by a string of legendary live shows, providing Glastonbury with a suitably stellar climax, during which Stuart Braithwaite urged the masses to "Fuck The Queen." That summer also witnessed Mogwai’s move into the rag trade with their cheeky "Blur: Are Shite" T—shirts. So demonstrably justified was this opinion that a certain Mr. Albarn himself was moved to demand a consignment.
Y2K came and went, thankfully without Martin’s pacemaker succumbing to the mythical bug. More thankfully still it heralded yet more new creative horizons for Mogwai. They solidified a mutually supportive relationship with legendary producer Arthur Baker by collaborating on a 20—minute—plus version of a traditional Jewish hymn "My Father My King." This in turn became the centerpiece of the band’s triumphant performance at All Tomorrow’s Parties, the now—essential weekend festival held in a holiday camp on England’s south coast. Amidst much paddling and piddling about, Mogwai found time to curate the event, ensuring the participation of such illustrious forebears and kindred spirits as Shellac, Sonic Youth, Papa M and Wire.
All of which goes to prove the essence of what makes Mogwai such a precious band: they mean what they do and do what they mean. They don’t let their art get in the way of having a good time. And they never stop thinking, pushing, kicking against the pricks. So when it’s time for a new Mogwai record, the safest thing to expect is the unexpected. Rock Action is that and much more. After two epic double albums, Rock Action is a single set, eight tracks, less than 40 minutes long. Aesthetically, it’s near perfect: it could almost be one song in eight phases. Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals sings in his native Welsh on the heartbreaking "Dial: Revenge," while Stuart himself sings on "Take Me Somewhere Nice," "O I Sleep" and "Secret Pint" (which is, as you will appreciate, the song—title of the year). Once again it was recorded at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios, with additional sessions at Ca Va in Glasgow and Sorcerer Sound in New York City.
"It’s very different," says Stuart. "We’ve used a lot of varied instrumentation, like banjos and violins and trumpets. Oh, and trombones! It’s not stark at all. It’s more Pet Sounds than Psychocandy. It’s velvety, with a little ’v’. We’ve moved away from the sackcloth of old. There’s still noise, though. We’ve spent a lot of money making this album sound hissy. There’s a lot of bands at the moment making the kind of music we’ve already made. We needed to do something different. People are going to be really surprised. The whole album is peppered with spastic magic."
Several years ago that noted modern sage Stephen Malkmus opined that Mogwai were "the band of the 21st Century." It should be noted that the 21st Century has now arrived.
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