If crafting a soundtrack that deserves to be heard on its own is challenging, surely doing so for a documentary is even tougher. Most dramatic films, after all, want a score to boost and multiply the emotions portrayed on screen, whereas documentaries for the most part try to make their points with at least the appearance of objectivity. 137 Films' The Atom Smashers is a rather disquieting look at Fermilab's hunt for funding and the intersection of politics and science in America. It's a film that wants to raise questions, but doesn't necessarily want to guide the viewer by the hand to the answers; and like most documentaries involving experts talking about their field, it needed a soundtrack to add some colour and interest for people not immediately riveted by government budget cuts and the hunt for the "God particle."
Whether or not a Chicago-based techno/house producer seemed like the most obvious choice to make that soundtrack, Music from the Atom Smashers reveals that 137 Films lucked out with Kate Simko. Sure, "God Particle" and the burbling "Sociber" are akin to a more retiring Monolake, but mostly it's a quieter, more reflective mood that's established here. Much of the album sounds like a digitized version of Mountains than house music, and from the gracefully unfolding tones of "Welcome to Fermilab" onwards it's clear that Simko isn't just comfortable in this style, she's accomplished.
The likes of "Tevatron Dream," "Nature Surreal" and "Quiet Daydream" share more of a background with Eluvium or even Stars of the Lid. There's something clean and clear about Simko's approach to this kind of ambient, lightly droning sound; even without the titles, Music from the Atom Smashers might put you in mind of science, of carefully controlled lab environments and inner spaces. At their best, the tracks work both as backdrops (it's easy to imagine what the filmmakers might put in front of "Who Needs Science?" or "Random Universe") and as separate entities. More than most soundtracks, the music here has been arranged into tracks that make internal sense as songs. You can occasionally catch hints of influence from other soundtracks, intentional or not (Cliff Martinez's work on Solaris, say), but with a few of the weaker tracks removed this could easily pass for an album without any movie connections.
Those weaker tracks are thankfully both generally brief and mostly stick out because they feel incomplete without the context of The Atom Smashers itself. It's hard to get much out of the brief, dramatic "Control Room" by itself, or the wind chime flourishes of "Trouble Brewing." And as a soundtrack, there's more overlap and repetition than you might find elsewhere—not just in the four tracks that appear in two slightly different versions apiece, but in how similar some of the lusher drones are. Music From the Atom Smashers is more interesting when it veers from the Reichian, optimistic "The Creative Part" to the unobtrusively grooving "God Particle" to the rustling, layered pulses and drones of "Who Needs Science?" than when you have to get through a couple of less distinguished tracks to do so.
But especially with a soundtrack album, and a digital album, it's churlish to begrudge Simko giving us more rather than less, especially since the best of what's here is so strikingly lovely. If you're dead set against the idea of soundtracks as actual albums, this one might weaken your resolve a bit; but however you feel about incidental music divorced from its original context, Music from the Atom Smashers will make you hope that Kate Simko doesn't relegate her ambient drone side to soundtracks, which rightly or wrongly are often regarded as peripheral releases.
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Tracklist: Kate Simko - Music from the Atom Smashers 01. Welcome to Fermilab
02. Control Room
03. Quiet Daydream (Intro)
04. The Creative Part
05. Fear of the Unknown
06. Nature Surreal
07. God Particle
08. Who Needs Science?
09. Nature Surreal (Airport Edit)
10. Trouble Brewing
12. Random Universe
13. Tevatron Dream
14. Quiet Daydream
15. Random Universe (Recap)
16. The Creative Part (Epilogue)
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