As a band, Mogwai has evolved at the same pace as its songs. No single Mogwai record can be classified as a massive sonic shift for the band. Rather, new instruments, themes, and styles emerge on select tracks, only to appear down the line in a more fleshed-out manner. Analog sounds, for example, have bubbled up in Mogwai tracks since 2001’s Rock Action, but they never quite dominated the band’s symphonic guitar suites until “Remurdered,” the standout track from 2014’s Rave Tapes. And while “Remurdered” stood apart on that album, that same year’s release of “Teenage Exorcists”—a lean three-minute rager off the group’s EP Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1.—felt “pop” in a similar sense, hinting at a streamlined sound that’s more rock than post-rock. Atomic is fascinating because it invalidates that narrative, with the band instead shifting its focus to a series of sonic touchstones that are as logical as they are surprising.
Atomic occupies a weird space in the band’s catalog. It’s a soundtrack to Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, a BBC documentary that explores both the horrors and triumphs of the nuclear age. This Atomic, however, is a reworked version of the music recorded for that film, and as such, its songs feel pitched between the ambience of a film score and the cathartic bombast of the band’s best work. Atomic is a departure from the pretty unobtrusiveness of the band’s previous soundtracks, 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and 2013’s Les Revenants, but it’s also never quite so aggressive as its studio albums. So, no, Atomic isn’t as loud as what we’ve all come to expect from Mogwai, but it is unsettling.
It doesn’t start that way. “Ether” is spritely, its opening synths falling like fairy dust over a rousing suite of horns, piano, and bass drum. Though not quite as bombastic, its slow climb and inspirational climax aren’t unlike the triumphant opening moments of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, one of post-rock’s most memorable sequences.
But it’s not long before the mood darkens. “Scram” pulses with barbed synths, and its grim follow-up, “Bitterness Centrifuge,” may as well double as an air horn in the event of an impending nuke. The album embraces beauty and triumph again toward the end, especially on the string-laden “Are You A Dancer?,” but its middle stretch is ominous. The buzzy, video-gamey synths so integral to John Carpenter’s Lost Themes suffuse songs like “Weak Force” and “Little Boy” with a dry, mechanical eeriness that conjures images of barren fallout shelters and rows of blank computer screens. That second act doesn’t make for easy listening.
The sterile nature of those synths, though, is important to the story this album is spinning. Sure, there’s always a self-told story in a post-rock album, but simply knowing Atomic’s history and thematic concerns helps to justify this album’s mechanized sound and balanced perspective. Mogwai is a vocal proponent of the march toward nuclear disarmament, but like the documentary it’s soundtracking, the band doesn’t forbid itself from gazing in awe at the grandeur that accompanies nuclear technology. No stranger to crafting expansive sonic universes, Mogwai is the perfect fit for this material. Its music is wondrous but also explosive.
There was a moment after “Remurdered” when critics wondered if Mogwai was ready to “go pop” like so many others in the rock landscape. The rest of Rave Tapes negated that theory, but it’s Atomic that helps listeners make sense of this evolution in Mogwai’s interest in synthesizers. Synths do play a major role on Atomic, but the record is still unmistakably Mogwai, filled with moments of triumph, beauty, and horror. When the apocalypse does come, let’s at least rest assured that we’ve got the perfect soundtrack for it.