Review Summary: The marriage of heaven and hell (or something like that)
As long-running legends within the slowcore scene, it’s either appropriate or unsurprising that Low hails from northern Minnesota. Their home region is one of the most frigid places in the continental USA during the winter, and this seems to have translated to the band’s glacial song paces and brittle emotional resonance. Overall, Low have managed to accomplish two rare things as a band. First, they’ve crafted an extensive discography without any true missteps, and second, they make music that really sounds like no-one else.
With all that said, a music fan discussing Low a few years ago would be forgiven for stating that the group’s best years were behind them. After 2002’s Trust
, or arguably even 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire
, the following series of albums, while competent and sometimes even more, generally failed to reach the regular heights which Low had scaled in their (alleged) prime. 2018’s Double Negative
, though, was a shock to the system, seeing Low strike out for something new (granted, there were indications on their previous album) with its focus on noisy electronic influences (with occasional moments of their traditional sound). While the album wasn’t universally loved (and in fact, I can’t say I really “get” a lot of it), this effort certainly saw the band at their most relevant in over a decade. Indeed, for many Double Negative
ranked up alongside the band’s traditionally identified classics, albeit just different in vibe.
This may seem like a lot of backstory for a review of the aggressively-titled HEY WHAT
, but it feels necessary. There’s really no discussion of the new record without referring to its predecessor, given it’s fair to describe HEY WHAT
as a continuation of Double Negative
, even if that’s a little simplistic. In reality, it appears Low took some key lessons from their play with a new sonic palette, and then retreated a bit from it, moving towards a more even duality between the abrasive collection of noise/electronic stylings which the last album explored and the subdued slowcore/indie/ambient sound the group has long trafficked in. With this choice, the band is playing with fire, as the potential pitfalls are widespread and easy to envision. Nonetheless, Low is perhaps the ideal band to attempt this, what with their long history of getting the most out of subtle (and many would say, often boring) soundscapes. Beyond that, even in their youthful I Could Live In Hope
days, the band was capable of threading a tightrope of sound and atmosphere. In particular, a classic like “Sunshine” comes to mind, the stunning beauty and innocence of the piece only adding to its inherently eerie, creepy vibe. What I’m trying to say is that, while the sound Low is fiddling with here is often dramatically different than what they were doing in their ‘90s heyday, the band is still comfortable with molding what should theoretically be oppositional forces into something unique.
“White Horses” is a great choice for the opener, simultaneously being both one of the album’s best tracks and solid introduction to the sounds that this edition of Low is exploring. Caustic electronics begin the tune, before the (typically stunning) vocals begin to soar over a menacing sonic backdrop. Lines like “still white horses take us home” leave much up to interpretation, whether this signifies a dirge or a song of triumph amidst the apocalyptic backdrop remains unclear. A repetitious conclusion slides effortlessly into the next track, “I Can Wait”, with its manically angelic vocals.
The rest of the record is a diverse bunch, if united by the curious fusions Low are dedicated to here. There are long-form tracks like “Hey” and the post-rock-tinged closer, a noisy short piece in the form of “More” which sees the instrumentals and the vocals cranked up to their most aggressive, and a couple comparatively mellow pieces, “Days Like These” and “Don’t Walk Away”, which lean more towards ambient pop, despite the jagged electronic pulses which periodically interrupt the former. In general, Low utilizes quiet sections and lengthy instrumental stretches, with the gorgeous vocals appearing only sparingly. This isn’t really a new innovation, the band has always relied on frequently restrained dynamics, and even the artist name seems to hint at this sort of thing. Nonetheless, this helps imbue the listener with the predominant sensation this album leaves behind: a feeling of being caught in a blizzard, a cauldron of billowing snow and shrieking winds (ominously bolstered by the non-descript cover art). Every now and again, there’s a brief respite provided by a mellower musical segment or the entrance of a shining vocal line, which suggests a moment of calm within the storm, or the sound of a loved one hollering into the maelstrom, trying to help. Then it’s back into the chaos, dragged back in through sinister blasts of sound, even as hints of somber beauty remain.
isn’t quite a perfect album, with a few transitions which come off as overly jarring and a handful of experimental moments which don’t do much for me. Nonetheless, after a few listens to allow the complexities and atmosphere to sink in, it emerges that this is a towering career highlight for a band which already has a fair amount of trophies on their wall. At turns comforting and unsettling, but always intriguing, this is a masterful incorporation of potentially-clashing soundscapes, and ultimately represents another must-listen release from one of indie’s most acclaimed groups.