Mogwai eschews clichés in favor of emotional integrity and accuracy.
Mogwai’s latest release features compositions that first appeared in Mark Cousin’s 2015 BBC Four documentary, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. The film reminds us that nuclear energy brings both devastation and innovation. It can be used to destroy nations but it can also be used in the preservation of human life. It’s hard to imagine a collective better suited to the task of telling the musical side of that story than Mogwai; the Scottish group is consistently imaginative in its compositional choices and eschews clichés in favor of emotional integrity and accuracy.
Some nipping and tucking has been done to the tracks since the film appeared, but that hardly matters. The mood and musicianship remain untainted by these changes. “Ether,” the album’s opener, is filled with majestic horn and keyboard figures that guide the listener down the narrow path between resignation and resolve. It is uplifting and beautiful and becomes a great source of comfort to which we can return when latter pieces become dark and unrelenting. Take “Pripyat,” which serves as “Ether”’s sinister cousin. There, we find ourselves no longer safe in those majestic highs of the past. Instead, we’re plunged into a blackened terrain where megaton cymbal crashes and mushrooming guitar figures conspire to create doubt and disquiet.
Elsewhere, “Bitterness Centrifuge” cracks and clatters with a ferocity heard in Norwegian metal. “U-235,” “Weak Force” and “SCRAM” are Eurocentric slabs of sound almost entirely devoid of anything as base as rock ‘n’ roll. They are also among the LP’s most prescient pieces, asking us to imagine a future music unreliant on the last two centuries for artistic nourishment and instead striking boldly forth to a place where rock, pop and electronica are irrelevant and, perhaps, non-existent.
The haunting “Little Boy” and the gorgeous space exploration “Are You a Dancer?” both sound like something Pink Floyd might have conceived during the wilderness years after Syd Barrett had departed and money wasn’t a song but simply something in short supply. These are meditations on the state of world and the pendulum swing between exhilaration and fear as we gaze at the monsters—atomic and otherwise—we and our kind have created.
It’s an uneasy resolution that we and the band begin to reach in the penultimate piece, “Tzar,” with its chiming guitars and patented emotional Mogwai wallop. It, like the rest of this album, is a meditation on the questions that living in the shadow of atomic power naturally brings to light. How are we to act and react? How do we make it through our days without succumbing to impenetrable dread and the constant fear of annihilation? Yet those seem like questions for a time long gone, one that was the epoch of a war that proved more remarkable for what didn’t happen than what did.
Those are the questions that linger during the album’s final moments on the piano-driven closer “Fat Man.” It is the most perfect six minutes this band has yet to record and the perfect encapsulation of Atomic’s real and imagined themes, images and ideas we would be wise to consider at least one more time.