Mogwai: The Barbican, London – 15th September 2016

There is a dichotomy that is going to run through this review – is it a review of a live gig or is it a review of a documentary film? Mogwai’s last album was the soundtrack for the film “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” and this concert neatly solved the problem of how to play music so closely tied to a visual presentation by playing it as an accompaniment to the film. It’s a neat, and near ideal, solution – as the film gains a lot of emotional punch by having the score presented live and at full Mogwai volume, but it does leave the band in the strange position of playing second fiddle to the strong images being projected whilst they themselves are lost in the stygian gloom of the barely lit stage. This, however, is unlikely to have been much of a concern to the band as the film’s message is one they subscribe to – citing a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial as a catalyst to their involvement in the Atomic project. There’s also a strong feeling expressed by guitarist Stuart Braithwaite that there’s currently a lack of discussion on the subject : “people talk about nuclear weapons in a really blasé way…you are talking about things that cost billions of pounds that are designed to wipe out millions of people’s lives in a second”.

The film consists primarily of cut together footage from a number of sources – such as civil defence films, examples of “duck and cover” public awareness films and newsreel footage of events such as the Aldermaston marches. It starts, as the playing does, in a more gentle mode – depicting life in all its myriad forms from spermatozoa merging with an ovum through rapidly expanding plant life – seeds sprout, plants shoot up, animal life abounds as does the complexity of human civilisation. All this to an accompaniment that moves from a percussive opening sequence of notes to an almost gleeful theme, glittering and chiming. There follows a film sequence of Scientists – seemingly a rogues gallery paving its way to the A-bomb: there’s Neil Bohr (who fled the Nazis), Einstein (who never forgave himself for signing that letter proposing military atomic research), Curie (who fell victim to her own discoveries) and on to Peter Higgs and the identification of the Higgs boson, a fundamental step in our understanding of the universe we live in. It’s hard to know what to think of this sequence – should, or even could, mankind have remained in ignorance? Was it wrong of Rutherford et al to try and describe how atoms are formed, and derive the mathematics that describes their behaviour? Was it wrong to ask the questions “what am I and what is my place in the universe?”. And although “Atomic” will, finally address the conundrum of good nuclear science this would only be after what can only be referred to as the downside. It’s 1945 and American propaganda is telling us just why the militaristic Japanese are so evil – whilst Mogwai’s music shifts to an ominous tension that builds irresistibly over film of tea ceremonies and laughing geishas. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. There’s nothing new here – but the unsettling sound brings the inevitability of the destruction into harsh relief. Who could look at footage of a small child shaking back and forth in the rubble, with the soundtrack underscoring again and again just how disturbing this is, and not think “this was not a good thing that has been done”. Seriously, if you’re ok with this then there’s something wrong with you. As a young girl asks “Mr President, why did you drop the bomb?” and the music pounds like waves, the film shifts to the waves of protest through the 60’s and up to Greenham Common in the 80’s. There’s a moment of postiveness as the optimism of the space race is linked in to the arms race – so often a story told, with some justification, the other way around – but this doesn’t last as Polaris and the “Star Wars” space based missile defence systems arrive on the scene along with the unsettling idea that a nuclear war can be won.

On the day that Hinckley Point was approved there were reminders of 3 Mile Island, and Chernobyl, as newsreel footage has people declare that having a power station on the door step is a great boon to the local economy there’s an uneasy contrast with the people left to live around Chernobyl. There are pauses in the music as things become a little more introspective – and when it returns it includes a haunting fiddle which cuts across footage of medical uses – it’s the same science that brought you the bomb that finds your lung tumour on an x-ray, powers your heart pacemaker, irradiates your cancer or enables the NMR scanner to work. Oh, and the World Wide Web was a spin-off of computer networking at CERN. As the film concludes with the opening life sequence running in reverse the band start to drift off the stage one by one, leaving ringing sounds that fade into a world of white noise until, finally, we’re left with the surreal moment were the screen is blank, the sound is fading down and audience are applauding, in a partial standing ovation, an empty stage. That must mean something, but I’m not quite sure what. There’s no encore – that would be crass after what we’ve just passed through, although due to demand there was a repeat performance an hour later. “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” is a grim experience, it’s meant to be, that’s its point. Mogwai’s soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment, and at ear shaking volume it hammers home the film’s points like nails in a coffin. Not what you’d call a fun night out – but not something to be ignored because of that.

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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