Atomic, 180G Black Vinyl 2LP
Mogwai's latest full-length is technically a soundtrack: It comprises reworked material from their musical contributions to last year’s BBC 4 documentary Storyville - Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, a chronological history of nuclear disaster (and innovation) from Hiroshima onward. However, unlike the previous works the Scottish post-rock innovators have scored (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, The Fountain, and "Les Revenants") the source material doesn’t have a clear-cut narrative*.* With no outside narration or interviews to provide context to the film's archival cortège (save a series of statistics at the conclusion), director Mark Cousins takes a bold risk and assumes the audience's familiarity with everything mentioned in "We Didn't Start the Fire." It's more an obtuse high-art music video than it is a traditional documentary. Atomic, on the other hand, is anything but esoteric. Despite its minimalistic approach, the album poignantly illustrates the binary oppositions that cropped up in Hiroshima’s wake: life and death, hope and fear, war and peace, atomic and organic.
Mogwai have always thrived on textural contrast: the fission of twangy strings against somber snare hits, the disintegration of brittle synthesizers beneath a tide of feedback, a violin crying out in silence. In keeping with the film’s themes, several tracks on Atomicsound corrupted. Beneath the uplifting fanfare of opening track "Ether," for instance, one can hear a faint, dull drone, as though the band recorded the track on nuked recording equipment. The unsettling murmur continues throughout the entire record, and even in moments of rare purity—such as the tender duet of guitars and violin on "Are You A Dancer?"—the mechanical roar is never far behind.
The majority of the album distances itself from rock and sticks to a doom-ridden breed of new-wave. "SCRAM" sees the group sequencing a stream of staggered synth lines into hypnotic orbit, like a Cold War Calder mobile, while "Weak Force" resembles a piano ballad performed by a forlorn android. The record’s final track, "Fat Man," is the most methodical and magnificent by far. The band take a lone, unassuming piano riff and bombard it with sharp guitar tones, the corruption further catalyzed with steadily-increasing doses of the aforementioned aural radioactivity; there’s a cinematic swell, and then... silence.