Post-rock and dystopian sci-fi fantasies are a natural match. The lavish layerings of electric guitars and anthemic drums can create visualizations of entire worlds, or galaxies, or menacing governments, or burning wastelands. It’s a gateway soundtrack into 21st century fantasies. However, looking back at the 20th century gives us real life events that match the drama of worlds dreamed up by the music. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is undoubtedly one of the most gruesome and fearful moments in human history. The Cold War that followed only heightened this unsettling feeling.
Mogwai’s Atomic is the soundtrack to this actual dystopian scenario. Originally created for Mark Cousins’ archival film documentary, Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise, the Scottish post-rock legends score the tensions of a modern nightmare. This isn’t the band’s first go-around with soundtracks, notably scoring the football documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, as well as the French vampire show Les Revenants. In both cases, the band did admirable jobs, if not leaning too much into the ethereal. In contrast, Atomic feels like a personal work with a clear, identifiable arc resulting in one of their most reverent works in a decade.
Longevity is an issue for many post-rock acts, articulated along the balance between finding a sound and running it into the ground. While some of Mogwai’s later work hasn’t been met with as much acclaim as say a record like Come On Die Young or Young Team, they’ve at least continued to explore different recesses of their aesthetic. While they never let go of the shivering guitar tremolos (nor should they), the band opts to showcase synthesizers more prominently on Atomic than in previous albums. This works not just from a standpoint of diversification, but also in theme.
For people born in the western world after the 1945 bombing, Hiroshima is a concept that feels distant and out of frame. Most of us can envision grainy footage of mushrooms clouds projected in history classrooms, but it’s another to think of the humanity behind it. By leaning in with synthesizers, Mogwai are able to tap into this impersonal idea. The synthesizer, a marvel of technology in itself, also reflects an idea of progress. It’s the sound heard in old movies when they’re trying to envision the future. That feeling comes across in “U-235”, with the sterile plunks of the keys rumbling against ambivalent swells of guitars and snaps of the drum kit. The platonic idea of the future then unravels with the next track, “Pripyat”, which devolves into more sinister tones. “SCRAM” heightens the tension early on, turning the keyboard tones into foreboding sirens for what’s to come.
These somewhat sterile moments do well to elevate the more human moments of the record, like the strings on the lovely “Are You A Dancer?”. Placed in the back-half of the record, it’s one of the first moments of levity since the twinkling of opener “Ether”. It’s where things finally begin to clear and the humanity of the atrocities inspiring this body of work sink in. The violins slowly swirl around the watery bass line and the understated guitar melodies. It’s said that the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice, and here the idea is heartedly represented. Every twist of the melody feels like a plea or lament, jumping to a higher register at the end before evaporating into silence.
Atomic succeeds because of the band’s willingness to dive into their muse and experiment. It’s why they’ve achieved such high status in the sub-genre. By taking on a subject larger than themselves, Mogwai are able to lose their identity in telling such a tragic story.
Essential Tracks: “Ether”, “SCRAM”, and “Are You A Dancer?”