By: Rich Buley
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Released on April 1, 2016 via Rock Action
The contrast between the distant, indiscriminate loss of life and suffering, on one side of the nuclear story, and the miraculous, meticulous, life-saving diagnosis of disease and illness in single individuals, on the other, could not be starker.
No less than 129,000 people died as a result of the deployment of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. In the same decade, the first nuclear reactor-produced radioisotopes for medical research were made, a massive breakthrough in the development of imaging techniques for lymphomas, cancers and tumours.
As a result of the catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident of April 1986, an estimated 60,000 additional cancers caused by radiation have been predicted by the year 2065, nearly half of which will be fatal. During the same period, the new radiopharmaceutical Iodine-131 was developed, to help the diagnosis and treatment of rare childhood cancers.
This fundamental conflict of interests that nuclear fission presents to humankind was depicted beautifully in Mark Cousins’ BBC commissioned documentary ‘Atomic : Living In Dread and Promise’, which aired last year on BBC Four. Put together entirely from old public information films, newsreels and b-movies about the nuclear age, and without additional commentary, Cousins guides the viewer through a non-chronological 70 minutes of expertly juxtaposed scenes and events, from prospering new life to unmitigated destruction, from militarian to medical advancement.
In enlisting the services of experienced Scottish post rock band Mogwai to provide the soundtrack for the film, the BBC must have known they were in very safe hands. Having first entered into the world of film scores with 2006’s wonderfully understated accompaniment to Zinedine Zidane’s balletic artistry in Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait, they then in 2013 provided a still becalmed but slowly simmering sonic enrichment of the first series of French zombie drama Les Revenants. Both projects obviously saw Mogwai working within a set framework, rather than having their own free reign, and it was interesting to note that the band found no place in either for their trademark- the ferocious, all-encompassing crescendos that so embellish their back catalogue. Perhaps it seems obvious that a ‘Like Herod’ style bludgeoning would never have fitted with a film about French football’s most elegant and visionary footballer. But Les Revenants’ lush, hushed tones were a revelation, as Mogwai perfectly understood the need to build tension and threat in a dark and claustrophobic drama.
Mogwai see this as their ninth album proper, which is interesting as neither of the two previous soundtrack projects were regarded as such. It is certainly their first recorded output since the departure of long-serving guitarist John Cummings, and with Stuart Braithwaite also having additional musical interests outside of the band, mainly in the shape of Minor Victories, one might have been forgiven for wondering about the long-term future of Mogwai.
Well, there’s never any guarantee, but our worrying can most certainly stop for now. Atomic is simply majestic. Testimony of how good it is must be that if you ignore the fact that this music was ‘written to order’ (post documentary reworking aside), the ten tracks on the album, in terms of quality, can sit legitimately alongside any previous, ‘freehand’ material.
2014’s Rave Tapes saw Braithwaite and Barry Burns’ increasing interest in electronica, and the cold, harsh tones of bands like Errors and Fuck Buttons, begin to bear fruit. The Atomic assignment, its subject, and the detached, almost colourless style of presentation, gave Mogwai an opportunity to showcase this quickly evolving side to the band- an opportunity they have taken most handsomely. Vintage, analogue synths whir, bubble and reverberate right through the album, and place the music perfectly in a time with the chaotic 1982 scenes at Greenham Common and the gradually unfurling horror of Chernobyl four years later.
As with the documentary, ‘Ether’ opens proceedings, with tinkling, cascading keys, like falling rain or burgeoning new life. Mournful, distant brass arrives, and the building, swelling effect that Mogwai are the absolute masters of, begins. Perhaps being mindful of the distracting force that a full-on, face-melting crescendo might have been to documentary viewers, but also maybe another indication of the ever-increasing poise and subtlety of the band, the track ‘opens out’ in traditional style, with a layer or two of distortion, but remains refined and controlled throughout.
Faraway machines buzzing into production open ‘SCRAM’, with alien, slightly off-kilter synths pulsing and billowing away, in classic Kraftwerk style. Again, guitar work is kept to a minimum, with Braithwaite’s distinctive scree used as companion and enhancer, rather than sonic taskmaster. ‘U-235’ goes further into minimal techno territory, with single key motifs and lugubrious synths suddenly placing Mogwai in the chill-out room of an underground club at six in the morning.
Martin Bulloch’s instantly recognisable, slow-motion percussion kicks the wonderful ‘Bitterness Centrifuge’ into gear, with those omnipresent, ominous synths combining spectacularly with the guitars as the track evolves into a gorgeous, swirling cacophony. If anyone has been in any doubt that Mogwai are still the undisputed kings of bloody lovely instrumental rock, then play them this tune.
Other highlights include ‘Little Boy’ (the US codename for the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Tzar’. Knowing what we know about the band, we might have expected the former to be something altogether more colossal than the sweeping, mouth-watering, short-lived refrain it is, a distant cousin of 2003’s ‘Kids Will Be Skeletons’ to these ears. And ‘Tzar’ burns brightly with the ever-present threat of an imminent, effects-laden meltdown, but retains pressure and aura with electronic pulses and strident keys.
Elsewhere, ‘Pripyat’ could almost be the sound of a drone providing a guide tour around the now deserted city that was home to Chernobyl, while ‘Are You A Dancer?’ (certainly the most Mogwai-esque track title here!) is reminiscent of the laidback sound of ‘Come On Die Young’, with (presumably) Luke Sutherland’s violin taking centre stage.
The album ends, appropriately, with ‘Fat Man’, as a fragile piano and a very slow, heartbeat-like percussion await the arrival of the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. Burns’ talents are very much to the fore here, as his emblematic keys gradually bring the storm over the horizon and into full view. Again, in keeping with the rest of the album, the magnification in sound is unmistakably Mogwai, but it is entirely calculated and unobtrusive.
Atomic gives further proof, if any were needed, of Mogwai as multi-faceted, masters of their craft. The progression into electronic experimentation has continued unabated, and yet amazingly the band has managed to retain almost every ounce of their intensity and allure. Yes, the ferocious, visceral guitar onslaughts have been absent for a while now, and this may not satisfy some of the post rock purists amongst us, but what should be celebrated beyond everything is the fact that Mogwai have never stopped innovating and evolving in over twenty years of creating, time and time again, some of the most remarkable, heart-stopping, beautiful music you are ever likely to hear.