The main attraction of seeing Low live at the moment, as they tour in support of their most recent album Double Negative, is having the chance to hear that album’s songs without distortion.
The album blew a lot of people away last year, and was definitely up there in my favourite albums of the year, contorting the duo’s well-trodden aesthetic into wholly new territory.
The tracks were allowed to clip, distort and eat themselves, whilst being kept under just enough control as to produce something still exquisitely beautiful.
Amid great political, societal and ecological anxiety, there’s an unspoken insistence that the best art speaks directly to that reality. Recent tumult has spawned a litany of works that hold up mirrors to ourselves and our predicament. But it has also, predictably, become a way of marketing art and music as activism – despite the actual content often falling short. Everything now is meant to be empowering, important or commenting on the state of the world. An exhausting number of new records purport to do this.
Double Negative feels different. It’s the sound of an edgeland, of fear and uncertainty, constant distortion of fact, and relentless end-times mania. The tension, disruption and noise of reality in a media-obsessed west that is in constant crisis feels very faithfully portrayed, and its dread is specific and true. In one of the few almost-comically bleak lyrical turns on the album, guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk sings, “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope.”
But, more than that, Low have tapped into a realm of sound that many might rightfully assume is completely alien to them.
When they announced the album, releasing a triptych of videos for the album’s first three songs, the first person I saw talk about it was Dale Cornish and his comparisons — Autechre; Pan Sonic — that have firmly stuck in my mind.
Pan Sonic — and Mika Vainio in particular — were renowned for their ability to produce a truly digitised industrial music; an industrial music for the age of computer labour, hard discs and the unseen; the ticking, drip-drip sound of information overload; a Geiger counter of civil unrest.
Low allow this aesthetic to leak all over their sound on this album, as if they made it like any other but left the window open for the terrors of uncertainty gathering outside. The resulting album is a beautiful disaster of digital noise and artful clipping but it is clear that underneath the studio fuckery there are some beautiful songs.
That was confirmed tonight but these songs are not business as usual. Their sound often dipped far below the slowcore comfort zone of their more recent albums and into shoegaze or even doom metal territory on occasion. There is little familiarity beneath all that damage. There is a different sort of sound here, dancing along a new border between dream pop transcendence and stoner rock transgression.
This band’s live shows have always been a treat but here, the memory of the recorded version only serves to elevate them further. What was given as a beautiful ruin is here completely resplendent. I don’t know how they found the courage in the studio to break these songs apart. It’s a testament to this band, in both its live and studio arenas, that they did.