One has to marvel at the complexity and versatility of the human brain, but that doesn’t mean that this gorgeous machine doesn’t have plenty of limitations and shortcomings. Read a bit about neuroscience, watch a TED talk or two on the subject, and it quickly becomes obvious that our organic CPUs aren’t entirely trustworthy in the way they process data. Biases come into play at every turn, and the famous similarity between “fact” and “opinion” complicates things endlessly. Still, these vulnerabilities only become truly apparent when one is faced with a complicated critical task. That’s a very roundabout way of apologizing for it taking me over two months to finally trust my opinions on “Atomic”, the new release by post-rock legends Mogwai.
RELEASE DATE: 01 April 2016 LABEL: Rock Action Records
“Atomic” is not an album unlike any other in absolute terms, but it is unlike anything I’ve heard in a long while, and unlike anything any other band associated with the post-rock genre is doing right now. Many artistic stylings have been the fonts of inspiration for contemporary instrumental music, but it seems to me like a very select few artists active nowadays still mine the music produced by the fantastic electronic pioneers of the late sixties and seventies. However, when your formative years have been as much influenced by Metallica and Nirvana as they were by Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, “Atomic” will stoke a fire in your heart which probably hasn’t been fueled for many years.
The songs on this record were originally used as a soundtrack for Mark Cousins’ documentary “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise”, and even though they have since been reworked by the band for this final, album version, their genealogy remains apparent. Mogwai have only partially managed to transform this collection from an OST into a concept album, but to be fair, it is the only such attempt I can think of to achieve this degree of success since Vangelis’ “Blade Runner”. The tell-tale signs hide in the way the album is ultimately very homogeneous and seems to be driven forward by forces which have less to do with composition for music’s sake and more with visual pacing. However, this visual character only adds to the overwhelming cinematic vibe of the record, albeit toning down the ferocious energy and savagery Mogwai have been known to employ on their non-OST releases.
The very vocabulary the band have chosen to use is completely tailored to the nuclear theme. Huge, pulsing swaths of sound engulf the listener, comprised of tones revived from the musical works of true children of the atomic age, such as Klaus Schulze, Edgar Froese and even Kraftwerk. Sweeping, icy Moog synthesizer vibrations permeate the album, steady rhythms count down with startling precision and implacable determination, sounds take on an awe-inspiring dual quality, encapsulating the unique blend of toxicity and soaring promise that this, the nuclear impulse, the last great yell of the modern age offered before decaying into post-modernism.
There were two phrases which battled each-other in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s mind as the first artificial nuclear explosion at the Trinity site unfolded into the horizon: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…” and the far more often quoted “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This exact duality forms the heart of Mogwai’s record, and it is a truly awesome thing to absorb. It also takes a long time to truly accept that the highly distinctive sound this record has is a true revival and not a gimmick, especially since Explosions In The Sky attempted something similar on their latest record, released on the same day as “Atomic”. I am of the opinion that Mogwai, tethered as they were by the solid concept providing the spine of their album, have succeeded spectacularly where EITS simply fell short.
“Atomic” is both a wonderful, contemporary exploration, and a heartwarming tribute to an often neglected area of music history. It succeeds at being a rousing soundtrack, and is refined enough to take on concept album qualities which allow it to become independent from its documentary origins. It is a record demanding loud playing volume and emotional investment, and I heartily recommend it, especially if you’re nostalgic for some krautrock/space rock.