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Mogwai - "Atomic" | Album Review

by Nicholas Otte (@ottenicholas)

Mogwai have never been much like any other band. That’s not to say they are any better or worse than their peers, even those few who have stood the test of time with the same consistency. It’s just to say that this group of Scottish musicians, whose discography speaks volumes to their mutability, often in different tongues, has only become harder to define with time. They are one of those uncanny groups that try their collective hand at an array of styles and approaches, but are nonetheless instantly recognizable – even as the pool of imitators has widened in the years since the once young team introduced the world to their sound. Mogwai seem increasingly disinterested in doing the expected, and this new endeavor only bolsters that claim. The songs on Atomic might not play by the rules or cater to expectation, but neither does anything about Mogwai. This is a collection of patient and effective movements rife with melody and emotion that, despite a more brooding feel and pace, fits comfortably alongside Mogwai’s past work.

Cinematic is a descriptor that has been applied heavily to Mogwai’s entire catalogue, though the word can be taken literally only on a few occasions. Mogwai are no strangers to visual medium, having scored Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, “Les Revenants,” as well as some memorable contributions to Clint Mansell’s score for The Fountain. The release of Atomic is slightly different, mainly because it exists more independently from the work for which the bulk of its music was composed. The music that Mogwai put together for and in reaction to the BBC 4 documentary Storyville – Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise is not presented as a score by usual standards. This is something much closer to a Mogwai studio album. Yet, to classify it as one or the other would be to cheapen its value in either camp. There is no strict narrative to follow here, and an absence of recurring melodic themes and motifs that one might be likely to find in a soundtrack proper. Simultaneously, there are less obvious structures and hooks than one might look for on a studio album, even ones by a group as unburdened by rock and roll tropes as Mogwai. Cookie cutter definitions continue to fall short, and that is already enough to garner some interest in the record, which, once started, proves worthy of such intrigue. 

Regardless of what hat Mogwai might be wearing at any given moment, they have always had a knack for beginnings. “Ether” is a natural doorway for the house (or bunker) Mogwai have built with Atomic. A sense of vastness, of space, pervades and defines this record. Mogwai have experimented with more atmospheric compositions before, but perhaps never on this scale. Atomic is in that way a nice antidote for their last studio effort, Rave Tapes, which saw the group dropping some of their more beloved and explosive elements for synth and beat driven tracks. There are plenty of electronic textures here, but they are utilized in an entirely different fashion. If Rave Tapes existed in some subterranean nightclub, Atomic exists in the open air. There is room enough to breathe, but so much room that it at times becomes stifling. The weight of vast emptiness can be as claustrophobic as a cell. This all works perfectly because, well, this air is toxic. Atomic isn’t just a cool word or a sarcastic touch (something one has come to expect from this group). The use of the word here is gravely literal.

Atomic isn’t all doom and gloom, though. There is a sense of beauty to these tracks as well, of wonder that hasn’t made it’s way into their work on this level in years. The opening track, and a handful of others, give the feeling that the band is searching for brightness and clarity, writing songs of hope amid a ruined landscape, marred by the corruption of war and misused innovation. The violin leads on “Are You a Dancer?” are haunting and lovely in equal parts, soaring carelessly above a low mechanized growl that is never far off, even in the album’s most soothing moments. This sense of haunting, of an inability to escape some pursuing destruction, is what makes these tracks stand out. The elegant piano leads on tracks like “Weak Force” are tortured by an inescapable sense of corruption. Though no particular melodic theme ties these tracks together, this sonic character – undeniably appropriate considering the documentary’s unforgiving content – is what allows the piece function effectively as a whole.

There are more traces of the band we know here than on other forays into literal scene-setting music. For one, Atomic is rife with Mogwai’s signature sea changes. A collective command of dynamics has been perhaps the group’s most powerful tool throughout a decades long career, and while their contemporaries have often fallen prey to oversaturation, such moments rarely feel cheap with Mogwai at the helm. Despite their recognizable character, the album remains a far cry from their more structured efforts. If this is on one side of a Mogwai spectrum, records like Happy Songs For Happy People exist on the other end. That does not mean that admirers of that record – undeniably a fan favorite – won’t be able to locate the same spirit that is so winning in that particular context. No song from Atomic will grab you by the collar and demand you listen, but if you’re willing, there is a wealth of value to be found. This is a record that asks for your patience and care and is at its best when your imagination is engaged – as is arguably the case with the band’s best work. 

I’ve been enjoying Mogwai’s music for years, but not for so many as some. I had some difficulty breaking in, cutting through the ice to the ocean beneath. For me, the hard part was knowing where to start. While every other Mogwai fan might recommend a different record to an interested listener, Atomic proves that there remains no terrible place to start. For a group with more albums and EPs than you could count on all your fingers and toes combined, that is no small feat. Hell, it’s no small feat for any band. Mogwai’s contribution to music continues to be a vast and largely rewarding landscape – now with more room to wander.