Mogwai Atomic

[Rock Action; 2016]

Styles: soundtrack, “post-rock”
Others: Mark Cousins’s 2015 documentary, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise

Perhaps the most important thing to note about Atomic is its designated status as a soundtrack. Following their work for films Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) and Les Revenants (2013), Atomic is a soundtrack to Mark Cousins’s 2015 documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise for BBC Four’s Storyville series, a film about the history of nuclear disaster since Hiroshima. Mogwai’s incursions into the soundtrack-form provide us with another way of problematizing “post-rock,” this time in terms of the commodity-structure of visuality.

The actual substance of Atomic doesn’t differ much from anything else found in their back catalogue. Following 2014’s Rave Tapes, perhaps the most significant difference comes from their replacement of their signature bursts of guitar noise with a subtler engagement with synthesizer technology. The effect is no less intense. Their music is still brutal and cathartic, but it’s less deafening, less a pursuit of the mythical “brown-note” than it is a more refined set of emotional intensities. As a result, Atomic demands a certain sort of concise formal analysis, rather than the traditional attempt to use the review-form to describe or, worse, calculate the possible emotional affect experienced by the listener.

The problem is that a soundtrack is by definition never a standalone piece, serving as a ripe allegory for the structure of the commodity-form. Indeed, just as the wretched suffering of the victims of the division of labor can only be expressed in terms of the value of the object of their labor, the soundtrack may well be condemned to express its value only in terms of images found elsewhere. Taking stock of this demands a re-evaluation of the relationship between the visible and the invisible, of the working of the imagination as they are shaped in the experience of listening to music as a blessed relief from the drudgery of work. This means that the images conjured by “Ether,” “Bitterness Centrifuge,” “U-235,” and “Little Boy” — all fine pieces of work — will have little to do with what their titles imply, what Mogwai intended, or the images that appear on screen in the documentary.

It’s immensely tempting to talk about how the invisible quality of the experience of listening to Mogwai’s music contributes to its force in terms of what Kant calls the “productive” (as opposed to the “reproductive”) imagination, given the band’s undoubted ability to produce images that can never be seen. It’s far too easy to point out how Stuart Braithwaite and the gang are unrivaled in their ability to “soundtrack” our experiences, encouraging us to plumb the depths of our imaginations, whether on a long walk through the gloomy mists of the English countryside or in the interaction between their characteristic twinkling guitar figures and the dance of words on the page during the experience of reading. Atomic’s central problem is that the televised images they are supposed to accompany are rendered with a certain heaviness, and the whole point of listening to them as a “soundtracking” device is that we can then account for their ability to produce extremely intense feelings, the very intensity of which is in direct proportion to their indeterminate quality, the fact that they’re your experiences happening to you.

There’s nothing wrong with Atomic. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably think it’s as good as Mogwai’s other work; if you’re aware of their career trajectory, it will mean something specific in that respect, too. The problems come down to communicating the weightlessness of the invisible imaginary figures that dance across your mind’s eye when you’re listening to it, and I’m not going to do that for you.

Links: Mogwai - Rock Action

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