Sound — 7
Album number 3 from Scottish post-rock heroes Mogwai is an interesting listen as it marks the point of stylistic change for the band, moving from the dark, ominous sounds of Young Team and Come On Die Young, which alternated between ultra-sparse arrangements and barrages of noise and feedback, to the lush, electronica-infused soundscapes that the band trades in nowadays. There could be two reasons for why this change happened - Rock Action is the first album to feature musical genius, keyboardist and occasional guitarist Barry Burns as a significant creative force, and you never quite know what to expect from Mogwai...
Musically it is more varied than the previous album, Come On Die Young, and it's easy to see the seeds of Happy Songs For Happy People and Mr Beas being planted here. Opener Sine Wave is composed of, well, sine waves, along with tremolo guitars and distorted drums, which segues into Take Me Somewhere Nice, a 7-minute epic composed of the customary Mogwai arpeggiated guitars married with lush string arrangements seeing the band go into shoegazing mode. Rock Action is probably the least guitar-driven album Mogwai have made but Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings have always been masters of subtlety. Nowhere is that truer than the second half of the album - ominous strumming gradually builds in intensity whilst remaining restrained over a bizarre four-bars-of-three-followed-by-a-bar-of-four metre in You Don't Know Jesus, a chiming arpeggiated riff is gradually buried under walls of strings, brass and synths in 2 Rights Make One Wrong and closing track Secret Pint doesn't feature any guitars at all, riding on subtle percussion and stately piano chords. Then there's the ever-melodic pickings of bassist Dominic Aitchison, one of the most underrated bass players around today.
It doesn't always work and there's a couple of pointless sketches (O I Sleep and Robot Chant) but as a glimpse into the sea change that was occurring in the band's sound at the time it's a solid effort.
Lyrics — 8
Rock Action is the band's most song-driven album to date. Whilst all of their other albums apart from the most recent, The Hawk Is Howling, contain at least one song featuring vocals, Rock Action contains no less than four - five if you include the Vocoder on '2 Rights Make One Wrong'. Mostly sung by Burns and guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, they range from hushed, reverb-drenched vocals that could easily fit somewhere on a My Bloody Valentine album to the gentle, intimate crooning of Secret Pint, surely one of the band's best song titles to date. The Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhy provides a guest vocal, supplying haunting Welsh chants on Dial:Revenge. Otherwise, Braithwaite may not be the world's most talented singer but he has a great sense of melody obviously borne from his guitar playing.
Lyrically there's also a change in style - whilst previous Mogwai songs which have featured vocals such as R U Still In 2 It and Cody have let the vocals and lyrics come to the fore, here they fall into a more abstract, vocals-as-an-instrument ethos - a bit more shoegazing influence there, if you ask me. But when the vocals do come to the foreground in closer Secret Pint you realise that Braithwaite has a great talent for pitching perfectly between abstract and personal - "Ghosts are scared of falling down/Tried my worst, came in first/Tried my best, failed the test"
If this album is anything to go by, Mogwai should include vocals in their songs more often.
Overall Impression — 7
Rock Action (named after late Stooges member Ron Asheton's nickname) is a curious album in that compared with the rest of Mogwai's work it feels unfinished and is definitely a link in the back catalogue. Take 'You Don't Know Jesus' and put a wall of fuzz and feedback in the middle and you'll have something that would fit perfectly on Come On Die Young, but add some synth pads and a drum machine and it would fit on a later album.
It's also probably Mogwai's most underrated album - whilst lacking a Christmas Steps, Mogwai Fear Satan, Glasgow Mega-Snake or Ratts Of The Capital to make it stand out it's probably the band's most approachable album, and that can't be a bad thing, can it?