Ten minutes into Mark Cousins documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise accompanied live by Mogwai we’re back in 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki watching archive footage of gargantuan nuclear blasts intercut with Japanese dead and dying whilst guitar, drum and synthesiser swell and erupt with muscular finesse and I find myself wondering whether this particular sonic arrangement, with attending aural connotations, can do justice to the incredible amount of suffering being shown.
As Cousins’ impressionistic documentary progresses chronologically – through Cold War, Chernobyl, the women protesters of Greenham Common, modern benefits of nuclear science – there’s a feeling that Mogwai’s (increasingly electronic) blend of post-rock lacks both the range and the discord of the subject. Perhaps this is apples and oranges but give me instead Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima any day.
There is beauty here, and emotion; inexplicably an hour in I am on the verge of tears from the sheer onslaught of Mogwai’s almost religiously repetitive build and fall dynamic. Similarly, moments in the final piano-led track Fat Man are devastatingly arresting.
But is there an intrinsic flaw in trying to make such an important argument (the documentary ends with nuclear casualty and stockpile figures, the case clearly being made for global disarmament) with stirring washes of image and music, operating almost entirely on our emotions and not our intellect? The event was overpowering, cathartic and skilful – but somewhat surface.