Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise originally aired on BBC4 in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which not only ended World War II but also kick started the Cold War. Created by Mark Cousins using only archival footage, it set out to cover both the horrors of the Atomic Age, from Cold War sabre-rattling to the Fukushima disaster, as well as its benefits, like x-rays and MRI scans. With no narrator the soundtrack had to be carefully selected, but rather than curating one, Cousins drafted in Scottish post-rock veterans Mogwai to write one from scratch.
Atomic is Mogwai’s third soundtrack, their two previous efforts accompanying 2006’s football documentary, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, and 2012’s French TV zombie drama, Les Revenants. Unlike so much of their output both were rather restrained efforts, but were exactly what was required for the respective projects. For Atomic, Mogwai have reworked the material that originally appeared in the documentary, creating more of a standalone album in the process.
Their signature combination of darkness and beauty, power and elegance are still very much present on Atomic, but it’s channelled more via electronics than on any of their past releases. This may be partly due to the departure of guitarist John Cummings last year and is perhaps a sign of their future direction as a four-piece. The increased use of electronics is perfectly suited to the subject matter at hand, helping give the album its dark and futuristic feel. Atomic contains more life than their previous soundtracks, but also less aggression than their regular studio work, resting nicely between the two.
“Ether” is an optimistic start, evoking the hope felt at the dawn of the Atomic Age. Its slow-building opening is reminiscent of a more twinkly version of “Mogwai Fears Satan”, before tremolo-picked guitar and drums come in for a signature finale. Atomic then takes a darker turn, first with “SCRAM”, and then on the fantastically gloomy “Bitterness Centrifuge”. The chilling synths and hypnotic pulse of the futuristic “U-235” restore some light, before the sinister trudge of “Pripyat” perfectly encapsulates the ghostliness of the abandoned town near Chernobyl it’s named after.
The second half isn’t quite as stunning as the first, but it’s not bad either, beginning with the ominous “Weak Force”. The sparse piano, delicate violin and slow-paced guitar of “Are You A Dancer?” is a highlight, with its early Mogwai feel. The same can also be said of the slow-building “Tzar”, named after the largest weapon ever detonated. Either side of these are “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, the names given to the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the uneasy synths of the former being somewhat brighter than the latter which closes the album with its stark, cold piano.
Atomic likely sounds best when you watch the documentary it was originally made for and understand the period that inspired it, but it’s certainly not essential in order to enjoy Mogwai’s strongest soundtrack to date. Atomic confirms that after 20-plus years together, despite being a key man down, that Mogwai are still among the best in the business.
Top Tracks: Ether; Bitterness Centrifuge; U-235
Released: 1 April 2016
Label: Rock Action
Rating: Strong 7 to a Light 8