Two years ago at a Mogwai concert in New York, just as guitarist Stuart Braithwaite was about to step on his distortion pedal to enter into another patented wall-of-dynamics moment, an anticipating audience member yelled out, “Stuart, don’t do it!” This caught the band completely off-guard, causing them to (rightly so) break into laughter. What better cue that the extreme dynamics which defined Mogwai’s jarring and epic instrumentals had simply become too predictable?
Whereas 1997’s twin releases of Ten Rapid and Young Team garnered Mogwai lavish praise and attention, the post-dynamics post-rock of 2000’s Come on Die Young met with utterly disappointing reactions. To be fair, Mogwai occupies a strange and ambivalent position in the world of indie rock: not so much original as very well-executed and, most of all, well-timed.
That said, Mogwai’s new release, Rock Action, shows the band moving more comfortably into its updated musical surroundings. The decision to keep the record short definitely helps, as 10 tracks clocking in at less than 39 minutes allows the music to expand slowly without becoming trite. Also smart was recruiting post-rock all-star David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Papa M) and Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys, who sings in Welsh on the particularly haunting “Dial: Revenge.”
The opening track, “Sine Wave,” sounds a bit like an outtake from the new Radiohead record: distorted Pro Tools drum loops, slow-moving synth lines and a choppy guitar line building slowly (slowly!) to a crescendo. Other tracks show Mogwai’s heart-on-sleeve love of American indie bands ranging from Slint to Low to Rodan. Rock Action’s payoff is the euphoric “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” with its twisting and intermeshing guitar lines, counterpoint melodies, horns, organ and syncopated drum rhythms dissolving into an Eno-era Bowie vocal chorus. Only a band so young and wonderfully wide-eyed could pull this off. And that’s where Mogwai still excels.
Aaron Warshaw is the MT listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.