I've forgotten how many albums Mogwai have made, or how many years they've been at this – 20 years, maybe – and yet, every time, their work seems fresh and new. Whilst furrowing in seas of utterly predictable instrumental voyages, “Atomic” is a soundtrack, their third after Zidane and Les Revenants, this time for a BBC documentary about nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Growing up, I was always aware of The Shadow Of The Bomb. At some point people stopped talking about it, but then, it was everywhere, like radioactivity, invisible, untastable, but omnipresent, at all places and all times at once, and I lived in fear of the inevitable Air Attack Warning that ushered in Frankie Goes To Hollywood's biggest hit... and my biggest fear.
Opening with “Ether”, their best individual song in at least a decade, the Mogwai template, of rising instruments to a crescendo, and then a slow, gradual disappear into the ether, is set. It's not exactly music for going out. Or staying in. It's music for thinking. It's music for having a bath to. It's music to find yourself, and lose yourself to. For me, it's also, in this at least, the soundtrack to a permanent state of fear, where there's a nagging sense of doubt, something that you can never step quite out of the shadow of, and here, it is everywhere. The instrumentation takes a darker tone, with subtle electronics pulsing in the background like a John Carpenter soundtrack, that offbeat waltz time that you can't quite like but adds a sense of creeping death (especially on “U-235”). In many ways, even instrumentally, it reminds me of the vague sense of unease, the cold, unwelcoming metallic threat, of Kraftwerk's “Radioactivity”, built on simple instrumental motifs that sound like a child's nursery rhymes, on a straightforward, but never stupid, structure, and a vague sense of slow moving grace. I'm not paid by the word, by the way. I just think this is a very good record that rewards repeated listening in rooms and on trains. Something about it reminds me of clouds. Of thoughts. Of intimacy and laughter in the face of the inevitable moment of mortality, that for many of us of a certain age, just in the shape of a mushroom cloud. In the shape of bombs dropped from B-29's into foreign cities. Into the shape of everything around us. “Atomic” is Mogwai's best album in ages. They are always good, always intruiging, always worth listening to, and this continues the theme.
What is the purpose of music? To entertain? To amuse? To make you see the world slightly differently in some way? To change your world, even if its only for a 5 minutes? Whatever the purpose is, “Atomic” is a success. Another great Mogwai record.