A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Duluth, MN’s Low return with possibly the most consistent album of their Sub Pop era, while still innovating and pushing forward.
Apart from My Bloody Valentine, perhaps no band has been associated with a genre quite so strongy as Low and Slowcore. And no genre, apart from the bands that came in the wake of the first wave of ‘gaze has succumbed to such stasis, neglecting the possibilities of slow tempos, somber moods, and a zen-like attention to tone, texture, and arrangements.
Imagine, if you will, that rather than incorporating the deep influences of the sometimes harsh Minnesota landscape, Alan & Mimi’s personal relationship with Mormonism, a love of vintage dub reggae and other psychotropic guitar musics, Low had simply heard some Codeine and American Music Club records and said, “I want to sound like that.”
Now, nothing wrong with that. We all love our record collections, and we all want to sound like somebody.
The difference speaks to a brief blip on the cultural radar when bands and musicians thought they had to fit into a genre exactly. Endless, hour-long debates about “Is this punk?” and “That’s not shoegaze!” because maybe it features synths instead of guitars. Endless, pointless squibbling and hair-splitting.
This tendency to get hung of on names and labels places a slow and subtle drag on culture, causing artists to second-guess themselves and to fit in with an on-going cultural trend, aka, sound like everybody else.
As with every other aspect of our daily lives, the internet has changed this tendency permanently and irrevocably. It’s not uncommon to see a handful of descriptors on Bandcamp, with a band slotting into sometimes six or more pertinent categories.
After 15 years of constant, consistent, continual access to music from every conceivable era, culture, and tradition, these hard and fast lines are beginning to dissolve, and the cracks reveal something interesting about the world and the artistic climate we’re living in.
Consider, for example, The Ramones – widely acknowledged as one of the first punk bands. The Ramones assimilated a love of ’60s doo-wop and girl group sounds, a sound and consistent fashion image, a little bit of (often unadvised) Marxist rhetoric, and the sometimes cartoonish ultraviolence of ’70s culture, EC Comics, and a hardened lifestyle of punk hustlers, struggling to make it in the mean streets of the Big Apple.
By way of contrast, bands that followed in the wake of The Ramones said, simply, “I want to sound like The Ramones. I want to be punk.”
There’s a lot less going on, and a lot less going into, the music, which has a dangerous effect on culture, in the longterm.
The moral of this story, to make a longwinded essay/rant short, is to ask yourself: what is slowcore? What does punk mean to me? What story am I trying to tell? What am I trying to broadcast?
I think the 2000s may have been the last decade we’ll see bands making albums just to make albums, churning out commodities to feed the market beast. Anyone who gets into music solely to make money is in for a sore wake-up call and I suggest they spend time googling investing in futures, or learning how to work on the internet. It’s bound to make a much more handsome paycheck.
For us masochists that can’t seem to help but make things, the invitation is to go deeper, to make something distinctive and personal, to tell stories in new and interesting ways.
Which Low certainly do, on Ones And Sixes.
The Duluth trios first album in two years, following 2013’s somewhat unjustly maligned The Invisible Way, finds Low blending the dusted sound of solder-frying drum machines with their traditional sound pallet of molasses-slow guitars and heavenly vocal harmonies that will transport you to some celestial cathedral made of white marble.
You’ll hear a lot more than Red House Painters miserablism on Ones And Sixes. Alan’s always epic guitar work ranges from monolithic to simple and ethereal, “Gentle”, “Spanish Translation”, to a mighty Western desert twang, like the pupil-popping outro of “No Comprende”, which would sound at home at any phase in Earth‘s canon, which is further layered with King Tubby-worthy dub percussion. Its the first heartstopping moment of the record, the first of many.
The exquisite guitar tones are fleshed out with all manner of keyboard atmospheres, from the underwater organ of “Spanish Translation” to the sculpted feedback that opens the album with “Gentle”, to a plaintiff, melancholic, reminiscent piano line, loving dipped in reverb like sandalwood incense.
Every detail is perfectly placed, deeply considered and utterly personal. THIS is how Low has managed to stay relevant, going into their third decade of making music. Still creating marbled worlds of endless twilights, with diamond stars silhouetting your quest for yourself, looking for the mystery in the heart of some crystal labyrinth.
It’s a far cry more interesting than simply trying to emulate a band. Or yrself.
So, to Low, outstanding work! Keep it up! Never change and never stop being yrselves. We can’t wait to see you on tour this fall!
And to the other bands out there: there’s nothing wrong with being inspired or influenced by other people’s art. In fact, go further! Wear your loves and your obsessions on yr sleeve. But Go Further! Ask yrself what it means to you, why you like it so much? What are you trying to say that is unique and distinctive? What story can only you tell?
Ones And Sixes is out now! Pick up a physical copy at Amazon or from yr favorite local record shop.