Mogwai is no stranger to soundtracks, with their contribution to the 2006 documentary on French footballer extraordinaire Zinedine Zidane being their first full-length foray into the medium, and their eerie dynamics lent the perfect amount of dread to the creepy French series Les Revenants. Though they’ve just released another one, working with Trent Reznor and others, tonight would focus exclusively on their partnership with director Mark Cousins, creator of Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise.
Created entirely of previous footage, Cousins work follows a fairly linear path of the atomic age, first highlighting the scientists who figured out just how the physics and chemistry actually work, and then moving into the practical (and not so practical) applications. The footage of the test explosions were eerily beautiful, black and white slow motion detonations that would not be out of place in a Tarkovsky film. The real-life footage of what was happening on the ground in Japan at two sites, not so much, and I’m glad that Cousins didn’t linger on it. The movie shifted to the protests of nuclear arms that erupted in the wake of this terrible destruction, carried forward into the turbulence of the 60s and 70s. The positives of the fearsome energy of atomic particles was also touched upon, with the advent of nuclear power promising clean energy and less reliance on OPEC, as well as economic opportunity in depressed economic areas. The flip side of that coin was the terrible accidents of Three Mile Island, Fukushima and especially Chernobyl, with uncontrolled destruction lasting for decades. The positives of nuclear medicine were also touched upon, albeit with a vignette of an experimental cancer therapy that ultimately was not successful for the child patient. While not spelling out a definitive anti-atomic stance, Cousins predominantly hovered in the “oh shit” side of the issue.
Mogwai are currently in a bit of a transition, as long-time guitarist John Cumming left the band in late 2015 and didn’t contribute to this recording. The net result tonight isn’t all that noticeable, with the throbbing synth lines of “U-235” not much different from “Deesh,” on 2014’s Rave Tapes. Augmenting the remaining four (de facto leader Stuart Braithwaite, bass player Dominic Aitcheson, drummer Martin Bulloch and keyboardist/guitarist Barry Burns) was Alex Mackay, who joined for this tour and alternated between pairing with Burns on keys or with Braithwaite on guitar. The slowly methodical “Little Boy” broke into full-on grandeur midway through, as Burns’ and Mackay’s gorgeous and stately synth lines created a climax before softly retreating, leaving the sparse beat and guitar pattern. The presence of second guitarist was critical for the final cloud of roaring electrons, the crescendo of “Fat Man 3” careening around the hall and conjuring up sonic storms of the past such as “Mogwai Fear Satan” or “Like Herod.” Even though it’s just a movie, you’re always better off having a pair of ear plugs around when Mogwai’s plugged in.