Rock Action was the first Mogwai LP I bought, fired-up by their insanely LOUD/quiet/LOUD/LOUD/quiet/LOUD earlier stuff that a friend had taped for me I went and bought it the day that it came out. I remember spending the bus journey home studying the sleeve, the inner sleeve and the odd-sized pull-out poster for info and being happy that Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals was guesting on a track. I got home, whacked it on and … got a bit bored.
Today in order to closely simulate the original listening conditions, I waited until I needed a piss, then instead of going I turned the heating on full-blast, sat on a gently vibrating couch with ripped seats for 45 minutes, pressing my knees hard into a wooden board directly in front of me, with nothing to read but the credits on Rock Action and hired a succession of sweaty men of above average weight to sit way too close to me for comfort. Then and only then, was I allowed to put the LP on. Truth to tell, time has maybe sculpted and mellowed me a little but this time I was … a bit less bored.
Let’s get a couple of points sorted. The whole of Rock Action is brilliantly played and wonderfully well produced by Dave Fridmann, there is a real warmth and precision to the sound. Also there are some really inspired moments here, restrained though it is there is a menace to ‘You Don’t Know Jesus’ the guitars really want to leap out and lacerate your ear drums, that they never quite do – it’s like walking past a ravening Rottweiler on the other side of a fence – you know it can’t get you, but even so you can’t help flinching away from it.
Gruff Rhys gets bonus points for singing in Welsh on ‘Dial: Revenge’, the band wanted the sound and texture of vocals but not the distraction of the words apparently*, although I’m afraid I don’t rate the song particularly. The same can be said for the likes of ‘Sine Wave’ which sounds really good but doesn’t really go anywhere. Interestingly David Pajo, ex-Slint and Tortoise dude, helps out too and it is surely not coincidental that there are a lot of good sounds and textures on this album, the first Mogwai one to use synthesisers, but I think overall it just lacks some real balls, any real Rock, any real Action**.
Again though, I’m not totally trashing Rock Action, the stately Tortoise-like ‘Secret Pint’ and the brooding, churning ‘Two Rights Make One Wrong’ are lovely, serene atmospheric jams for example. However, when Mogwai first came on the scene they were a real anomaly, coming on like a bunch of hard-drinking low-rent hooligans whilst making music that was usually the province of the more cerebral; I really loved the way they stormed the citadel. What elevated their take on post rock even more was the visceral crunch of their guitars, it was something primal, they hurt live – there was something really earthy about this brain music. That is exactly what is missing here, we have the nut shell without the kernel, the journey without the arrival,
the foreplay without, look, you get the picture; or as The King would have it,
A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me
Satisfy me baby.
PS: For the sake of my narrative here I’m sneakily ignoring the fact that Mogwai’s second LP, Come On, Die Young, had begun the process of moving away from explosions of LOUD – I didn’t get to hear that one until a few years ago.
*apart from us Welsh speakers, I guess.
**see what I did there? no, don’t applaud, it embarrasses me! Oh, if you insist.