Release Date: Jun 17, 2016
Record label: Temporary Residence
Genre(s): Alternative Pop/Rock
Upon motive alone, this is a poignant release – a reworked version of the original soundtrack created for Belfast-born director Mark Cousins’ docufilm Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. Released to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the movie makes for stunning, and certainly at times harrowing, viewing – and the group reflect the filmmaker's vision with selfsame precision. Infusing the tracks, as Mogwai's Barry Burns noted in a recent Q&A fundraiser, with "tonnes of vintage synth" was a creative lightbulb moment, or a stroke of pure happenstance (you sense that Burns might frame it either way) – but in any case, it's a decision which evokes precisely the right dose of reverie.
It was strange to see all those people on Twitter making such a fuss over the showing of Watership Down at Easter because their children might be frightened. Watership Down used to be a constant in any child’s education about death and was shown in primary schools and the likes of Threads, When The Wind Blows and any number of terrifying public information films were there ready to throw a dose of reality and terror into childhood. They were character forming.
Mogwai have always been masterful with compositions that can come off as pure anticipation build to the uninitiated, an overly simple generalization for the sweeping crescendos, morbidly grand gestures and patient eruptions lurking in the band’s catalogue amidst tongue in cheek humor, celebrations of club culture and the payoff of deftly wielded cinematic flair. There is a beautiful sort of informed populism to the Scottish veterans long romance with forging their own way, far beyond the narrow “indie rock” peg they were initially handed. It’s a thrill to hear Mogwai’s sense of control more than ever, conservative energy capping certain parts at a gentle murmur.
In their own ways, Zidane and Les Revenants are some of Mogwai's finest work, so it makes sense that Atomic -- an album based on their music for the BBC 4 documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise and their first release after the departure of John Cummings -- follows suit. The band's tenth album recalls not only Zidane and Les Revenants but the fearsome sweep of Jóhann Jóhannsson's Fordlandia, another unflinching look at humankind's capacity to discover and create equally constructive and destructive technology. Even separated from the documentary's imagery, Atomic contains the wonder and horror of breakthroughs like x-rays and MRI scans as well as nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Mogwai have always produced some of the finest emotional rollercoasters in the post-rock universe. Having them take the soundtrack they did for the BBC Storyville documentary "Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise" and rework it into this album is something that captures so many things. The essence of mankind, the limits and non-limits of imagination, boundaries we refuse to be confined to, ideas tested, ideals we shun and so many other issues revolving around our characteristic, nature and evolution.
A good soundtrack will take you back to a certain scene from a movie as soon as you hear it, but a great soundtrack sounds good whether or not you've seen its visual accompaniment. Scottish post-rock unit Mogwai's latest cinematic exercise Atomic falls into the latter category. A ten-track album comprised of reworked material that was originally created for Mark Cousin's acclaimed BBC Four documentary about the horror and awe-inspiring beauty of atomic energy (Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise), the band's latest effort finds them further focusing on the propulsive power of analog synthesizers, crafting elaborate and explosive compositions that warp and seduce the mind (the John Carpenter-esque "SCRAM" and "U-235"), as well as more traditional, slow-boiling songs that instil a sense of fear the longer they last ("Little Boy," "Pripyat").
“We gaze at it in wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror”, concludes the BBC Storyville documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. Not only does this capture the character and ideas of the film but also offers clues as to why Mogwai were ideal to be its musical partner. Over the course of their long career, Mogwai have perfected the art of mood-shaping instrumentation.
Post-rock and dystopian sci-fi fantasies are a natural match. The lavish layerings of electric guitars and anthemic drums can create visualizations of entire worlds, or galaxies, or menacing governments, or burning wastelands. It’s a gateway soundtrack into 21st century fantasies. However, looking back at the 20th century gives us real life events that match the drama of worlds dreamed up by the music.
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.
If any group can provide the soundtrack to a film about the nuclear age, it's Mogwai. Along the way in their epic career they have periodically taken on the task of translating their spacious and magnificent rock orchestration into the auditory language of moving image. Their scoring of the documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise is a mighty demonstration of their ascending apprehension of how to complement cinematic tone.
Perhaps the most important thing to note about Atomic is its designated status as a soundtrack. Following their work for films Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) and Les Revenants (2013), Atomic is a soundtrack to Mark Cousins’s 2015 documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise for BBC Four’s Storyville series, a film about the history of nuclear disaster since Hiroshima. Mogwai’s incursions into the soundtrack-form provide us with another way of problematizing “post-rock,” this time in terms of the commodity-structure of visuality.
Apocalyptic. Is there a more wretched phrase to describe post-rock? Apart from maybe 'post-rock', I’m going to say no. Now, I absolutely adore the genre, but ask you this: at the end of the world, who’s going to want to listen to 15-minute suites of wordless despair? Frankly, I’d rather put on ‘Armageddon’ by Alkaline Trio. At least that’s got some defiance.
How many records have Mogwai made by now? 25? 100? As many as can fit in an Ikea Expedit cubbyhole? Nine LPs, four live albums and 13 EPs, actually – or, to put it another way, one giant wave of crushing noise. And yet the Scottish post-rock veterans show no signs of slowing. Atomic is a reworked version of their soundtrack for BBC4’s Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise.
It starts gently – a bass drone followed by a plucked motif; showers of twinkling notes dance, while a nostalgia-evoking brass section adds a warm embrace. Growing slowly, it steadily builds to a joyous explosion of sound, a celebration. This is Ether, the first track on Mogwai’s score to the Mark Cousins documentary, Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise.
Mogwai — Atomic (Rock Action Records/Temporary Residence Ltd. )Scotland’s Mogwai seem like a natural enough fit for soundtrack work that it’s not particularly surprising that Atomic is the fourth one they’ve released as an album. But Zidane: A 20th Century Portrait was made quickly (and partially improvised) to Douglas Gordon’s completed film, their contribution to The Fountain was alongside the Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell and only occasionally prominent, and Les Revenants saw the band making the soundtrack at the same time the show was filming (and so having only an approximate idea of what would happen, even as the show was able to respond to the music as it went); essentially, so far Mogwai have used soundtracks as places to stretch out and do things differently.
The Upshot: A companion piece to a BBC documentary that features none of the big dynamic shifts you’d expect from earlier albums. Ironically, for soundtrack to a movie about atom bombs, it is uncharacteristically lacking in explosions. Pictured above is the colored vinyl version that fans were able to pre-order; although it doesn’t get shipped until early June, it’s already sold out.
Nothing: The Incredible Sulk. Emma Johnston on new releases from Nothing, The Joy Formidable, Future Of The Left, Broncho and Mogwai Nothing: Tired Of Tomorrow There’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned mope as we start heading into the warmer months, and right now, no one is getting their sulk on with quite so much style as Philadelphia’s Nothing, as they prove on their accomplished second album, Tired Of Tomorrow. This, in case you were wondering, is a compliment.
Last year, Mogwai crafted a score to accompany the elliptical narrative of documentarian Mark Cousins' brazen account of the nuclear age, Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise. Billed as their ninth album proper, the pieces released here are reworked, remastered and retooled versions of what graced the original production, and is talismanic in that it is the first time the band has put something to tape without John Cummings on board, the guitarist having left on his own tangential path last year. Yet this effort is far from foreign for them.
As a band, Mogwai has evolved at the same pace as its songs. No single Mogwai record can be classified as a massive sonic shift for the band. Rather, new instruments, themes, and styles emerge on select tracks, only to appear down the line in a more fleshed-out manner. Analog sounds, for example, have bubbled up in Mogwai tracks since 2001’s Rock Action, but they never quite dominated the band’s symphonic guitar suites until “Remurdered,” the standout track from 2014’s Rave Tapes.
Over the past two decades, “cinematic” has become an overused byword whenever post-rock (itself a contested term) is discussed. Glasgow’s Mogwai have turned in some of their best work when operating within a soundtrack format, but how does their score for nuclear age documentary Atomic: Living in Dread hold up against past successes? From the moment Sigur Rós’ sweeping “Svefn-g-englar” was deployed so effectively in 2001 Cameron Crowe psych-thriller, Vanilla Sky (earning an Oscar nod in the process), post-rock has become a go-to source of inspiration for a certain gene pool of soundtracks. In the 15 years since, we’ve seen a plethora of collaborations and sync deals, whether that be the aforementioned Icelanders turning up copiously across nature documentaries and commercials (most notably in one for David Attenborough’s Planet Earth), Explosions In The Sky’s heart-on-sleeve tumult ably showcasing the highs and lows of Friday Night Lights, or Mogwai’s handful of cracks at the soundtrack whip – see their exemplary scores for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and acclaimed French supernatural series The Returned for documents of the band at their most audio-visually effective.