Mogwai played ‘Atomic’ at Town Hall (pics, review)
In April of last year, post-rock powerhouse Mogwai released Atomic, the soundtrack to Mark Cousin’s BBC4 documentary, Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise, which serves as a chronological history of nuclear disasters from Hiroshima onward. The Scottish purveyors of loud are performing Atomic on tour as the documentary plays on a big screen behind them. That hit NYC on Sunday night (1/29) at Town Hall.
As a movie, I found that Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise was really nothing profound, either in intent, production, or purpose. Through 71-minutes of archival footage, the piece touches upon the bombings Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the post-tsunami Fukushima disaster of March 2011, cold war stare-downs, and various nuclear disarmament protests through the ages. It also touches upon how the atomic age has improved lives through x-ray and MRI technology. It shows viewers what it's like to live under the thumb of a nuclear threat and how political egos often find the lives of millions of people to be completely inconsequential. It also serves as a cautionary tale for current and future generations that the threat of a nuclear holocaust is still a very real possibility (in my opinion, thanks to Trump, I think a nuclear holocaust is a virtual inevitability). Overall, I found nothing exciting or new coming through in Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise; it just felt like a loose archival footage mix-tape. I hoped the archival assemblage would have created a stronger narrative but at the end of the 71-minute piece, it hadn't really.
Mogwai are no strangers to creating effective soundtrack works. If you haven't seen the brilliant French TV series Les Revenants (not the US version), I urge you to rectify that immediately (on Netflix). In addition to creating a memorable theme song, Mogwai masterfully created atmospheric audio that pepper the entire series and drive the emotional and thematic elements to much greater depths. Mogwai also scored the ambitious 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. This particular film, which captures football icon Zinedine Zidane during the course of a single game via 17 different cameras, is an underrated, textbook example of sound and vision working together flawlessly.
Back to the show at hand. For me, it was Mogwai's phenomenal performance last night that really elevated Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise to something more powerful. It produced moments where I could feel my heart beating through my chest and my anxiety levels ebbing and flowing. Set against troubling images flashing across the screen, Mogwai used their post-rock might to create a much more tangible sense of dread, misery, stress, mania, and cacophony. On it's own, Mogwai's Atomic is an amazing listen. Set to the imagery of Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise, though, and the work is much more sinister. Sat in the dark below the brightly illuminated projection screen, there were many moments that I sort of forgot Mogwai were actually there, even though their volume was rattling my teeth. Sadly, after the movie finished, the house lights went up and the road crew began rolling the road cases onto the stage. The disappointment that there'd be no encore was palpable. But even though the evening felt a bit abbreviated, there is no doubt that for the 70+ minutes they were on stage Mogwai were in absolute top form and masters of their craft.