Scottish Experimental Rock elders, Mogwai released their 8th studio recording, Atomic on April 1st. With two decades and counting of influential music under their belts, Mogwai are among some of the most important underground artists to have developed in the past quarter century. They have influenced and lent a helping hand to bands such as Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks. Their music has appeared in dozens of iconic films. Mogwai are a rare band who seamlessly weave the ethos of punk rock into a sound all their own, refusing to be pigeonholed for the convenience of the music industry. Atomic follows their 2013 album Rave Tapes.
Mogwai was founded in 1995 in Glasgow, Scotland. The members are Stuart Braithwaite providing guitar and vocals, Dominic Aitchison on bass, Martin Bullock on drums, and Barry Burns on guitar, piano, synths and vocals. Their sound has evolved over time and blends the genres of Shoegaze, Math rock and Art rock. Their influences range from Fugazi, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and The Pixies to The Cure.
To gain a context for the latest release one has to understand its origins. Atomic is a rework of Mogwai’s film score from the acclaimed BBC documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise by director Mark Cousins. The 2015 documentary was constructed entirely from archive film covering the horrors of the Cold War, Chernobyl and Fukushima as well as the positive changes of the Atomic age. Mogwai are longtime vocal supporters of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament so there is little surprise that they would be involved in providing the soundtrack for an examination of the subject. The album like the documentary attempts to balance the nightmare of the nuclear age and its dreamlike qualities. Braithwaite in discussing the band’s involvement in the project has stated, “…ever since we went to Hiroshima to play and visit the peace park this has been a project very close to us. The end results both the film score and the record are pieces I’m extremely proud of.” The result of their effort is a high quality and powerful protest album. The message is conveyed entirely with instrumentals. It is filled with righteous anger, and melancholy. Atomic is dynamic, dramatic and absolutely massive.
The release launches with Ether which sounds as if it has come from the underworld dragging behind it something unknown. The song features shimmering chromatic keyboards that are dramatic and frightening; haunting horns summons forth something terrifying from the mists. “Ether” is a modern day hymn to dread. The last third of the track explodes delivering a mind blowing rush of sound. Scram is the accompaniment to the rise of the military industrial complex. The track builds and builds to mimic the lurch towards total domination that was the rise of the arms race during the Cold War. The oscillating keyboards bring to life a vision of Frankenstein’s laboratory or maybe just Los Alamos. The composition is alarming and forbidding. The visceral force is elemental as you feel the atoms pulse and radiate as they are asked to give up their secrets during the race for nuclear domination.
Bitterness Centrifuge has a gritty opening and the heavy grandeur of the song is apt for the heavy topic. The drums do some serious work on the track along with the amazing droning keyboards delivering the somber feeling of the selection. U-235 is named for the chemical numeric name of Uranium. The song is filled with electronic brilliance. The music expands and spins over the soundscape producing a mysteriously beautiful and mournful selection.
For me the strongest track is the evocative Pripyat. It is a soundtrack to accompany a ghostly tour of the abandoned city that resulted from the Chernobyl disaster. “Pripyat” captures the essence of the lingering human shadows and the bittersweet knowledge that these haunted images were caused by an unnecessary man made atomic disaster. The track channels all its anger through the fuzzy synths as it relays the waste and trauma of the event. Weak Force is a companion piece to “Pripyat” and is a hymn of solemn beauty. It is redolent with a pulsating force like endless waves and a light synth coda operating over the bottom end.
The title Little Boy is a reference to the nick name for the companion nuclear bomb to Fat Man. “Little Boy” was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The selection has hard hitting impact and is full of drama provided by the guitars and synths that deliver wavery fluttering melodies filled with sorrow. It is moving and emotive piece.
The gripping Are You A Dancer? utilizes strings to provide the voice on the track. These strings ride mournfully above the brush drum play and heavy bass making for a bittersweet and doleful aura. Tzar is hypnotic as it weaves a spellbinding sense of uplift. The fuzzy distortion at the intro morphs into an intricate guitar and tribal drums combo. This all explodes into more musical goodness in the second half and captures the listener. The captivating work give a sense of man and ghost fighting to breathe. The final track, Fat Man refers to the name given the bomb that demolished Nagasaki. The song is aptly funereal. The simple piano and synths bow in and out of the composition. The song is filled with poignancy and at the half way point again opens up to and even wider soundscape. The heartbeat dying out at the end can be likened to the end of an age and the beginning of a new atomic age.
Atomic is impressive. Mogwai have a masterpiece on their hands and it is their strongest album to date. It is a potent set of songs; concise, euphoric, terrifying and full of twists and turns. It soars, rants, races and weights heavy and then spirals to the heavens. Mogwai bravely jump in with both feet on a topic that leaves very little grey area or middle ground. The reward for that bravery is a simply spellbinding release. Many have used prose and lyric to speak out against the horrors of the Nuclear age, but few have captured instrumentally all of the implications like Mogwai have on “Atomic”. The release may not be for those who can only relate to top 40 but it is a very important work and beautifully crafted. It is truly inspired and inspiring.