Label: Temporary Residence Limited
Throughout Atomic, Mogwai stick to this concentrated space of restless anxiety. They’re climbing up walls and sliding and slipping back down, letting the turmoil ferment. It gets emotionally jarring at times — as on “Scram” — and is just as often physically uncomfortable; it’s all very pins-and-needles. As a band, they’ve always been about the big moments; times where you close your eyes and float above the urban maelstrom. Here, though, in a commissioned score for Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, a BBC film by Mark Cousins about the after-effects of the atomic bomb, they show a sense of self-restraint, mostly residing within the shackles of that condensed landscape, only bursting out
It’s a new side to a band (a statement that holds a lot more value given they’ve been around for 20 years), where they ditch the guitars — or at least consign them to the back — and instead develop extreme, gritty passages of sound through synths that dip and peak periodically for a sense of dynamic flow, distorting in timbre from time to time and opening up often enough to keep neurosis and claustrophobia at an arm’s length.
Conceptually, the idea of redemption has been an almost permanent fixture in Mogwai’s gliding, guitar-heavy, experimental, instrumental sound — with Atomic though, given the subject matter, they seem more interested in exploring rather more thorny and awkward themes of corkscrew immersion. But it’s not something they abandon altogether. The narrative does broaden and swell once the record settles, as when “Weak Force” and “Little Boy” (particularly) develop, offering temporary respite, even if the premise is well established by then.
And then, right toward the end, on “Fat Man”, the very last song, the storyline seems to all come together. The soft, delayed piano sprinkles seemingly traipse on, before finally — finally! — erupting into a grand release. Redemption might seem excessive, but what that moment offers is a sense of clarity. Of faint but real hope. It’s when the realisation sets in that, all along, this is a record about careful optimism in the face of despair, almost. That the music adds meaning to that fitful notion, and it all makes sense in a way.