The Mogwai fan base, patiently biding time since the group issued its first single in March 1996, has calmly (if with steadily heightening anticipation) soaked up numerous singles, EPs, and remix projects and two double-length albums. Rock Action arrives, then, as the 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 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.
Yet the difference between the albums -- for there is one, perhaps felt subtly 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 postrock has to offer (and let's face it, the term postrock 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 Morriconesque meditation ("Take Me Somewhere Nice") in which the orchestral passages and hushed, yearning vocals are deeply romantic, profoundly cinematic. A minimalist, plinky 56-second segue then sets the stage for the album's subtle masterpiece; "Dial: Revenge," with its rich scrim of soaring keyboards and swaying strings, peripatetic fretboard meanderings and sweet choirlike harmonies, suggests George Martin conducting the Phil Spector Orchestra 2001. And later, when the album's other standout tune -- a nine-minute, horns-and-Mellotron-laden soundscape (and the sole number bearing the once-traditional Mogwaigian massed-crescendo signature) -- rolls up, it's not a slab of psych-for-psych's-sake aimless jamming but an entire new daydream-nation's worth of forward-looking 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 marks Mogwai's new dimension(s) in sound.
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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-postrock era's Sgt. Pet Sounds' Lonely Hearts Club Band. And that's no hype.