Post-rock isn’t quite old enough to have an mold-defining grandparent band. So, consider Mogwai the cool oldest brother of the genre.
Mogwai formed in Glasgow in 1995 and soon perfected the art of emotive soft/loud attacks. transitioned from chimes to buzzsaws before you could get your earplugs in. As simply a genre of music that rarely contains lyrics, most any post-rock can become an instant soundtrack to any visual. Thus, it’s no surprise that Mogwai has composed and recorded several actual soundtracks, the latest called Atomic.
Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise, directed by Mark Cousins follows our nuclear history, explained only through archival footage from government instructional and propaganda films and BBC documentaries. The only commentary is from the footage itself. The narrative starts at the beginning of the splitting of the atom, through the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War arms escalation of the 80s, through to nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Not all doom and gloom, we see the Large Hadron Collider along with the birth of medical treatment and diagnostic uses of nuclear material. The film ends with footage from a Chernobyl documentary of farmers and fisherman who refused to leave.
On January 30, Mogwai came to the Danforth Music Hall to perform the soundtrack to the film, to a full house. Without greeting or acknowledgement, the five Scotsmen took their positions on a near-black stage to await their starting cue in a workmanlike manner. The documentary started, as did the arpeggios of the first track, Ether. They played each song from the album in sequence to the film, at time playing to the visual beat of the film to perfection. As the film neared one of the most infamous times in history, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, the audience braced themselves for something horrific. And proving that they are perhaps the only band on the planet who could pull it off, they performed the grim grinding white noise music of an atomic blast and its devastating shockwave.
As the documentary progressed, the audience became moviegoers more than a live music audience. There were times when I found myself deeply concentrated on the film and entirely unaware that musicians were performing the soundtrack live onstage. As the documentary ended, one by one the band left the stage to a wash of noise, only then as the final member of the band to leave the stage, de facto leader Stuart Braithwaite, did the audience get a wave. The house lights immediately came on and people shuffled out to determine how to classify the show they raptly sat through.