Ever since their formation in Glasgow in 1995, Mogwai have emphasized a level of control and artistry in their music that has helped to redefine common perceptions of rock as being harsh and abrasive. The way in which their elegantly arranged guitar lines merge together, endlessly repeating themselves and steadily building anticipation with each note is often more evocative of the minimalist work of Steve Reich than the rock-n-roll tradition. It is music that eschews dramatic flair, but still demands the listener’s attention and focus.
Fortunately, the impressive conservative energy that has come to define Mogwai’s body of work also makes its impression on their newly-released studio album, Atomic. The record marks another venture for the band into television and film scoring. It comprises of re-worked and re-mastered versions of their soundtrack for Mark Cousin’s documentary on the nuclear age, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. However, Atomic is a clear departure from the pleasantly atmospheric tone of the band’s previous two soundtracks (Zindane: A 21st Century Portrait and Les Revanantes). After all, the album does attempt to be faithful to the film’s grim subject matter, which details the horrors of Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Strikingly, the album begins on an optimistic note with “Ether.” A simple, major-key, trumpet melody is accompanied by an orchestra of shimmering chimes and subtle percussion, before the song finally climaxes on a rousing tremolo-picked guitar passage. However, following this brief moment of triumph, the album quickly becomes more and more unsettling. “SCRAM” offers a hypnotic arrangement of mostly digital sounds that simultaneously transfix and rattle the listener. The loud, blurring drones of “Pripyat” capture the feelings of despair and abandonment that inevitably followed the evacuation of the city of the same name following the Chernobyl disaster. “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” – both WWII atomic bombs – employ minor-key melodies that are disquieting in their haunting delicacy, almost as if they are suggesting the quiet before the storm that was the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Atomic is perhaps most effective in its ability to coherently convey these themes of hope and destruction from the documentary. Mogwai’s newest project is, above all else, a cohesive musical work – a concept album. The pieces flow together seamlessly, as certain motifs, tonal formats and musical textures repeat themselves over the course of the album. For example, “Tzar” uses a variation of the uplifting harmonic progression heard in “Ether.”
In terms of instrumentation, Atomic does not merely experiment with electronic texture; it consistently and fully employs it. Perhaps due to the departure of founding member and guitarist John Cumming – and surely to the disappointment of some – Atomic is an unabashedly electronic album. It refines the new, more electric sound that has characterized some of Mogwai’s more recent works (e.g. Rave Tapes), and firmly structures it around a narrative sequence.
This album is definitely not for the impatient listener. In fact, it may mark the band’s most strikingly atmospheric and mature work to date. The soundtrack’s bleak subject matter, paired with Mogwai’s fundamentally minimalist approach, can make Atomic a somewhat difficult listen at times. However, songs like “Ether,” “U-235,” “Are You A Dancer?” and “Fat Man” will still probably resonate with the casual fan. And the entire body of work does age quite well with each subsequent listen. In brief, those who approach Atomic with patience and a sense of curiosity will be rewarded with a deeply moving listening experience.