Writing the score for a television or movie soundtrack is no simple feat as the composers have very strict, and awkward, constraints to work within – write a piece that lasts 2 minutes 37, not a second more or less; it has to invoke a feeling of hopefulness but must also compliment the tone of sadness in the scene; and it has to have lulls between 1:12 and 1:21, and 1:44 and 2:16, for dialogue. It’s not a musical art-form where the songs a given free-reign to unfold as they will, and the filmic constraints imposed on the music don’t tend to make for the most compelling albums to sit and listen to. Luckily, Glaswegian post-rockers, Mogwai, haven’t released the music they provided for Mark Cousin’s BBC documentary, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, at least not exactly.
For the 10 songs presented on Atomic: A Soundtrack by Mogwai, the band reworked the music they provided for Cousin’s documentary and, in freeing themselves from the abovementioned strictures, formed a coherent album that still manages to take the listener on an evocative journey similar, but not identical, to the one of the film. Opening track Ether builds ethereal atmospherics from an electronic tone and string drone which persists until the song’s halfway mark when Mogwai switch to their more traditional wall-of-sound approach – one of the few times on Atomic that Mogwai apply this sound – but the horn melody holds the song together as a whole. SCRAM features a throbbing, writhing, quality to the composition which slowly builds before the track ends with a rapid de-escalation – rather fitting for a song named for an emergency shutdown switch used in nuclear power plants, and you will notice that the songs of Atomic are named for details of the nuclear age.
U-235’s rhythmic tones and building drum-beat seem to mimic the radioactivity of the titular isotope before the track settles to an inert state, and the dark, marshal, sounds of Pripyat, delivered with a volume that increases to the point of distortion, perfectly tells the story of the Chernobyl disaster which left the eponymous Ukrainian city abandoned. Little Boy most sounds like the Mogwai the listener is used to and opens with feedback and sustained notes drawn into mournful tones, and this sense of mourning is revisited – but via piano – on closing track, Fat Man, which uses distant sounding percussion to express a sense of disbelief and detached shock – fitting vibes for songs named after the instruments of a quarter million deaths. The spacious Are You A Dancer, with its maudlin yet hopeful opening, juxtaposes well with the mechanical drone and uplifting piano of Tzar, a song which seems to ape the sense of Soviet superiority that must have been felt in the USSR on that February day in 1959 when the world experienced its largest ever nuclear blast – the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba – before erupting in classic Mogwai fashion.
Over their career, Mogwai have often employed atmospherics as part of their song-craft, but with Atomic they have outdone themselves, shaping a record that conjures vivid images in the mind of the listener whilst remaining emotionally engaging. All these elements were present on the songs used in Cousin’s documentary, but by reworking them and not merely repackaging them, Mogwai have shown not only great artistic judgment but also solid artistry.