It isn’t often that a band whose been releasing work for over two decades retains the ability to shock you, but Mogwai’s latest release, Atomic, is nothing short of stunning. As with all great albums it has taken several times listening through to even begin unpacking exactly how Atomic elicits such chilling, surprising depth.
The album, by its nature, is a narrative work; for the last few years the group has focused on writing music for the screen, most notably the soundtrack for the French television show, Les Revenants. This is also the foundation for Atomic. In 2015 the group wrote the soundtrack for a documentary called Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, and the album Atomic is the reworking of those original songs.
The first track on the album, “Ether” isn’t immediately striking as a song Mogwai would make or even a song that fits within the framework of post-rock. From the very start “Ether” is lush with sound, taking all the negative space so played upon in post-rock and obliterating it with a synth rhythm persistently twinkling over the low sustain of guitar. The heavy instrumentation isn’t the only thing that sets this song apart though. “Ether” is resoundingly triumphant, in a way not often associated with groups like Mogwai or their compatriots, but everything about the tone in “Ether” seems like it could be played over a video of the first time a rover landed on Mars or a time-lapse of reforesting the Amazon.
It isn’t until much later on the album, on “Pripyat,” that the music dips into something more expected. This is where you find the familiar swelling spaces between notes, instruments communicating slowly with one another providing the chilling sense of melancholy we’ve come to expect and long for.
“Are You A Dancer?” is one of the greatest songs on the album, perhaps in their entire discography, full of depth and paradox. Winding down in tone from hopeful, exploratory, triumphant, “Dancer” is pointedly dark–the faintest sound of piano in the background playing contrasts forward, reverb-heavy guitar—both aggressive and soft. But both of these only lay the groundwork for a violin line so beautiful it will linger in your memory hours after you’ve stopped listening. It is these simple and brief parts that they have written into this album that make Atomic feel like a masterwork; a collection so powerful, so passionate it’s difficult to imagine this isn’t what they’ve always been working toward. »
– Sarah Eaton