by Audrey Avril ’19
Earlier this month, Scottish post-rock band Mogwai released their new album, Atomic. Technically, they released a collection of songs off the soundtrack they produced for a documentary, but if you’re a Mogwai fan, you take what you can get. In this case, what you get is a pretty good album.
Tied loosely to the history of the atomic bomb, Mogwai manages to encompass destruction and creation, the past and the present, despair and hope, all in a mere 50 minutes. From the first track to the last, Atomic sends you on an otherworldly journey while keeping you tethered to the humanity of it all. Buckle up.
The album was scored for Mark Cousins’ Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, a documentary which ran on BBC 4 and chronicled the rise of the atomic age from Hiroshima onward. The documentary itself is comprised of mostly short video clips cut together quickly and in sometimes jarring ways, and with very little audio and no voiceover recording, the narrative is traded for an overall more experimental viewing experience. Whether this works in the documentary’s favor is up for debate, but it provides the perfect backdrop for the soundtrack to grab your attention.
Because it is a soundtrack, Atomic is able to benefit from the defined theme, yet the ambiguous narrative also allows it to provide a consistent listening experience while still having room to move. “Ether” starts the album with delicate excitement and rising exaltation, but as the album progresses, instrumentation and power begin to build and pitch as the promise of nuclear power warps and turns into an uncontrollable arms race.
“Bitterness Centrifuge” begins the quick dissent into mesmerizing power with bursts of electronic grumbling alongside a steady drumbeat. “Pripyat,” so named for a town abandoned in the Chernobyl disaster, begins to pull anxiously on the listener, while also using quiet electronic beats to place us at a fascinating, cold distance from the disaster, as if we are sitting in a dim, Cold War control room. Yet it doesn’t make tragedy into spectacle, and treats the subject well with a serious, often remorseful sound.
The rest of the album continues in a similar fashion, dancing between sometimes-overwhelming energy of the moment and quiet distance, experiencing the awe-turned-terror of atomic power on the ground and then experiencing the remorse of having unleashed it far off in a laboratory. As the dread and fear increases, so too does the complexity and calculation of each piece. In a way, listening to the album does provide a narrative, although one so based in excitement and dread that we as listeners cannot help but be swept up in the experience.