I have to admit, it took me a while to find my way to Mogwai. Even after seeing them in 2004 during an ear-shattering assault that left a good friend of mine and I stunned and shell shocked at the Curiosa Festival I still just could never bring myself to dig deeper into these Scottish post-rockers. But on a whim in late 2010 I picked up The Hawk Is Howling and everything changed for me. Songs like “Scotland’s Shame”, “Batcat”, and “The Sun Smells Too Loud” took me into Mogwai’s world. Ever since that afternoon in 2004 when my senses were violated by jet engine-volume distortion shrieks and feedback squalls for nearly 10 minutes I assumed these Scottish dudes were the equivalent of artsy noisemakers for noisemaking’s sake. Sonic blustering just to provoke. Turns out I was completely off base.
The Hawk Is Howling, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, Rave Tapes, and now their newest, Atomic, are carefully crafted records that are (mostly)instrumental journeys that are equal part pastoral soundscapes and heavy guitar wallop. I know I’m only covering the last 10 years of a nearly 20 year career, but I haven’t delved back into the early days(yet). This is a review of what’s happening now, and for my ears the new Atomic is what is happening right this very moment.
Like most in the post-rock canon, Mogwai were and have remained a mystery to me as a band. There’s no guitar solos, tasty drum fills, or lead singers belting out lovelorn lyrics to rope in the disenfranchised and broken-hearted. They don’t have individual spotlights shining on them one at a time, showcasing their individual bits. They work as one musical organism, building together not separately. In doing this their faces blur, and individuals become cogs in a post-rock machine. While this might sound rather dystopian, I think it works to Mogwai’s advantage. You’re not left with personality’s vying for the listener’s attention, but just the music to soak your head in. I think that’s why I’ve fallen so hard for Mogwai; as well as Explosions In The Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and This Will Destroy You, to name a few.
Mogwai, I think, are made to score stories on a screen. They’ve dabbled in the past with songs in film and working with the Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell for the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but they truly shined with their score for the French TV series Les Revenants. On that score the band showed their mastery for nuance and mood, things they’d honed over the years as reigning kings of instrumental rock. Atomic is a re-tooling of the score they created for Mark Cousins’ documentary Atomic, Living In Dread And Promise. Having not seen the film I don’t know how different the album version of these songs are from the film, but in the canon of Mogwai music this record is one of their best.
Like their previous effort, the excellent Rave Tapes, synthesizers play heavily on this album. Not heavy in a way that the music is over-saturated with analog drip, but subtle plucks and dips are surrounded by orchestral richness like on album opener “Ether”. This track sounds like John Williams in outer space, or Howard Shore scoring in a black hole. Pretty soon the guitars soar in to put us smack dab in a Glasgow practice space and ground us back on the home planet. “Bitterness Centrifuge” feels monolithic in its “wall of doom”-like sound. It’s both emboldened by the sonic weight and tipsy in its overwhelming heft. “Little Boy” is subtle but strong, synth-heavy melancholy(melancholy is something these guys have always done well.) “Are You A Dancer” falls even deeper in quiet, maudlin vibes. A beautiful musical work. “Fat Man” is completely haunting and one of Mogwai’s most delicate pieces yet.
Atomic, as an ornament for another’s artistic achievement works beautifully, and on its own stands as a singular artistic statement as well. Like Explosions In The Sky’s wonderful The Wilderness, Atomic pushes the instrumental rock album to a whole other level.