Low seemed like a singular band from the beginning. They were a practicing married Mormon couple, dedicated to playing as quietly and slowly as possible, in the teeth of the grunge era of the early 90s. In fact, Low stood out so much that people felt compelled to invent a new sub-genre for describe what they were doing: the slowcore. It was a label the band didn’t like and quickly got over; It turned out that they could move at full speed when it suited them.
Then at 25 years of his career, Low became even more unique. Their sound had always shifted and changed, occasionally in unpredictable directions, and electronic percussion had infiltrated the 2015 Ones and Sixes. But nothing could prepare listeners for 2018’s Double Negative, which took the kind of studio processes that they’re common in modern pop: pitch-shifting vocals, digital manipulation, the sidechain compression that makes the rhythmic tracks of pop-dance hits cut through everything else. all of them up to 11 and applied to a rock band. The end result was an album that truly sounded like nothing else. Low weren’t the only alternative rock artists to think along more or less similar lines: Double Negative was produced by BJ Burton, who had worked on Bon Iver’s A Million, 22, with fractured technology, but the extreme limb with which it was altered the sound of the band changed. Double Negative in a category of its own.
In addition, it was published 18 months after Trump’s presidency, as his campaign managers were jailed for fraud, and Rudy Giuliani informed NBC that “the truth is not true.” His lyrics rarely addressed American politics, instead dealing with everything from Mormon attitudes to same-sex marriage to mental health, but his short-circuiting bursts of unidentifiable sound, distorted voices, and a state of mind. The overwhelming moods of dread still seemed to fit in the moment, feeling like a transmission from a disastrous country on the fritz, “dissolved in a hideous inverse state” as their final track put it.
The acclaim for album of the year duly followed, but the impact of Double Negative also seemed to raise concerns in the band that had made it. It sounded like music literally pushed to the limit, and once you’ve pushed it all to the limit, the question of where are you going next becomes urgent. Happily, that’s a question Hey What answers perfectly by refining and adapting the sound of its predecessor.
The first thing you hear on the White Horses opener is a guitar transformed into a kind of choppy, choppy groan, followed by a rhythmic track made up of crunchy digital distortion. The last sound could have once been produced by a guitar, but it is impossible to say for sure. The song ends with an unadorned minute and a half of his unwavering pulse, which speeds up and becomes the basis for the second track, I Can Wait. Next, when you come across the fluffy sonic textures of All Night, eventually you stop trying to figure out which instrument was originally involved, it’s hard not to be surprised with the idea that on someone else’s album this might constitute the weirdest track; On Hey What, it feels like a kind of respite, before you dive into the increasingly battered sonic world of Disappearing.
Therefore, Low is reported not to be interested in reducing Double Negative’s experimental confrontational advantage, but that’s not the whole story. Hey What is also a much more melodic album than its predecessor. The beautiful harmonic voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are largely without processing frills and louder, which seems to give the songs, or at least the listener, a bit more room to breathe.
This fits in with the tone of the album, which cannot be described as optimistic, but at least it has a note of stoicism. The strength of the Sparhawk and Parker partnership as a bulwark against the former’s fight against depression informs Don’t Walk Away and The Price You Pay (It Must Beading Off). The lyrics for Days Like These see the world lurching from crisis to crisis, but there is something truly poignant about the melody, cutting through the bursts of exhausted sound from the accompaniment, while the extended instrumental coda feels calm and purposeful. At other points, the juxtaposition of vocals and music is more haunting: Hey features the most beautiful melody on the album, but has an accompaniment that constantly changes from a delicate, flickering vibe to something much darker and creepy. Stranger still, in its peculiar way, Hey What rock, especially in the fantastic More, based on a riff that looks like equal parts Led Zeppelin and My Bloody Valentine, if you squint.
Many bands have been compared to My Bloody Valentine over the years, in large part because they were desperately trying to sound like them. The lows really aren’t, but they feel like an appropriate name for uplifting anyway. The music that Low is currently making has a similar, eye-catching air, where the hell did this come from, to Isn’t Anything and Loveless; As with those albums, the people behind Hey What are redefining what a rock band can sound like. It says something, about Low and about rock music, that you have to go back 30 years to find something with those qualities.
What Alexis heard this week
Disco-infused pop, but Naked feels deeper than that – there’s something off-beam and sinister about the strings, and a sense of unease amid the beats of the dance floor.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism