Gig review: Mogwai and Mark Cousins, Edinburgh

Mogwai at the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Steve Gullick

Mogwai at the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Steve Gullick

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One enjoyable aspect of this year’s EIF contemporary music programme has been watching the reaction of what might be termed more traditional EIF-goers to some of the more cutting-edge musical propositions on offer.

There can be little doubt that any show by Mogwai will be among the most challenging which this audience has faced, such is the Glasgow rock group’s commitment to high volume, but there’s also much to appreciate for open-minded fans of classical music in their virtuosic and emotive performances.

Making its Scottish debut, the band were live-performing (as a six-piece) their score to the film Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, an 80-minute found footage documentary about the use and misuse of nuclear energy.

Although he was co-credited as a performer here, the film’s creator – the Northern Irish, Edinburgh-based director and critic Mark Cousins – was present onstage only as the creative force behind the film; a position even more anonymous than the band, who at no point had stage or house lights turned up on them. The effect was brilliantly atmospheric, however, and lent our full attention to the visual and sonic elements of the work.

It’s something of a stretch to describe Cousins’ film as a documentary, more of an essential illustration which takes us on a guided visual tour of nuclear power in the second half of the 20th century. Where no footage exists he has evocatively drawn the mood and the feel of a scenario, beginning with the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Japan, as told by vintage bomber footage, shots of Japanese children looking to the sky, and what we worryingly surmise are real images of casualties from the blasts; the performance of this film in Hiroshima back in June must have highly emotional.

Elsewhere, we see the Dounreay reactor, Polaris submarines entering the Clyde, the Faslane peace camp.

Above it all, Mogwai’s music towers, a succession of glacial guitar riffs and wailing electronic lines which called to mind the Germanic progressive rock sound of the height of the Cold War.

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