Mogwai: Atomic

Awe-inspiring soundtrack from the peerless post-rockers.


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Areal-time film about a gifted footballer (Zidane) now remembered chiefly for a high-profile headbutt. French ghosts spending two series (of Les Revenants) in the rain in search of some kind of discernible storyline.

Mogwai have soundtracked some interesting, left-field projects before, but now take on a prodigious challenge. Mark Cousins’ documentary Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, which first screened last summer, is a thoughtful, powerful study of both the horrors and benefits of the nuclear age. From the upsides (X-rays, MRI scans) to the huge catastrophes (Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Fukushima), Atomic is complex and often crushing. Mogwai have now reworked their music for it and, two decades into their career, come up with an album that ranks alongside their very best.

They gauge when to build suspense and when to explode.

Shape-shifting instrumentals of such brooding beauty are, of course, a reviewer’s nightmare. We’ll try hard here not to lapse into the usual Mogwai-related analogies of glaciers, earthquakes and sonic cathedrals. With no lyrics, and effectively no personalities, it can be tough to convey the music’s character. Even tethering Mogwai to a genre is a minefield, as they move between post-rock, art rock, prog, shoegaze and burbles of electronica, while making a mockery of such categorisations. We can safely assume you have a sufficient handle on the Scottish sound sculptors to know what territory they tend to function in: they are not, for example, about to burst into a chirpy chorus or do anything resembling jazz hands. They know what they’re strong at, but aren’t shy of surprises here. What makes Atomic tingle, however, is their judgement now: they gauge perfectly when to build suspense and when to explode.

The tone is set by Ether, which opens with a mournfully pretty refrain coloured by Robert Newth’s French horn. You half expect the guitars and drums to kick in for some Mogwai dynamic contrast. They don’t. But then they do. Anticipation is half the fun of experiencing their music. Will it ‘go large’? Will it restrain itself? Obviously, when they do go large on this album, it’s ruddy enormous.

It’s far from a trot through the dream pop tropes though. Scram is a throbbing, hypnotic pulse of warped electronica, echoing Moroder and Jarre, which builds to a sunburst. Bitterness Centrifuge is a wall of loping, corrosive lava, while Weak Force offers ghostly piano stabs that take the essence of Nyman or Glass and ramp up the hauntology. There are soft, subdued sections before the colossal Tzar starts flinging galaxies around your ears and finale Fat Man carries you away.

Post-rock? Post-apocalyptic. Mighty, marvellous music.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.