Album Reviews

Low - Double Negative (Sub Pop)

Ruben Mita

First Low, then hopefully Duster to follow - 2018 promises to be a great year for fans of 90’s slowcore.

Or does it? While Duster’s hinted-at return will take the form of their third album, and first in almost two decades, Double Negative is Low’s twelfth studio effort, another step in a journey that has long since seen the band expand beyond such a stylised term as “slowcore”.

Now in the milestone 25th year of that journey, their latest album is perhaps one of their most significant steps in a new direction yet, a bold dive into experimental electronica.

Central married duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have held on to producer B.J. Burton after his work on their previous album, 2015’s Ones and Sixes. On that album, the Bon Iver and James Blake collaborator’s influence could be heard on the crunchy processed beats, but here it seems that the band have leaned on him more fully in the creative process.

The music here gives the impression of sketches of Low songs that the electronica-savvy producer has been unleashed on to rip apart and expand from the inside. Often, Sparhawk and Parker’s trademark joint vocals fight to emerge from the washes of grainy electronic noise, processed in several places with an effect that ties their volume adversely to the swelling of the instrumental.

This is heard straight away in the first track, Quorum. It opens the album with fluttering eb-and-flow static that swells like waves, signifying big changes for the band from the album’s opening moments. The processed vocals lurch disconcertingly in and out of the foreground, rendering most of the lines unidentifiable. The tangibility of Quorum’s production makes the song one of the album’s best - the right-in-your-ear crackle, the menacing surge of the noise.

The rest of the album follows in mostly the same vein - indeed it’s often hard to imagine a band, or anyone besides a solitary producer, hiding in this wash of sound at all. When a vocal does suddenly emerge to clarity every now and then, it alerts our attention as though a special moment, such as Parker’s floating lead on the beautiful, almost trip-hop-y cut Fly.

Elsewhere, Burton’s production is enough on its own, as on the lo-fi electronic fuzz of Tempest, where the vocoder vocals blend in as one with the wall of crackle.

Predictably for such a songless approach, the album suffers from some pacing issues. Each song flows into the next, often by way of a lengthy ambient drone, which isn’t a problem in itself until you reach the end of the album and realise you didn’t even notice listening to over half of the tracks and can only remember one or two at most.

Placed well, these long ambient segments can work (the apocalyptic rumble of the instrumental The Son The Sun is sonically lovely despite the seeming complete absence of the band), but the three minutes of drone that ends the second track, Dancing And Blood, kills off any kind of momentum the album had built up in its early stages. The first half of the song is experimental-pop filtered through...something, coming out as a cavernous minimal drum beat.

Indeed perhaps the most jolting tracks on the record for old fans of the band aren’t the circuit board freak-outs but the more vocal-centric tracks that sound like an obscure modern alt-pop or even R’n’B artist - Always Trying To Work It Out, Rome (Always in the Dark) and Poor Sucker.

The last two in particular sound like something you could imagine coming from an unpopular-pop radio station while driving in-and-out of reception through some hills. Surprisingly, it’s the vocal melodies and vocal processing that give them this flavour even more than the booming beats.

Eight tracks in, the soft opening guitar of Dancing And Fire is like a jolting reminder of who it is we’re listening to - the same band that made I Could Live In Hope (well, two thirds of them.) Indeed the whole song could almost be slotted on to one of their earlier releases.

Double Negative is both minimalist and maximalist, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a more bleak and unforgiving listen than it should be, partially because of how harsh it feels to hear the warmth of the band buried in a cold futuristic soundscape of broken circuit boards. It almost plays like a concept album of this exact dystopian situation - humanity struggling to be heard over a world of technology which is itself collapsing around them.

In the end, the album feels like a series of experimentations with sound, and taken in this way it does succeed to be sonically very interesting. As an album though, it feels strangely lacking in substance on the part of the band. There aren’t any stand-out memorable moments, isn’t anything that is truly affecting or impactful despite the extremity of their new direction.

The track order is puzzlingly chosen, with several long moody pieces at the beginning failing to build momentum and two unassuming uptempo pieces, Rome and Disarray, chosen to close with. Having listened several times, I’m left with the uncomfortable realisation that the vocals - the only recognisable feature of the band that remains - don’t add anything to the album for me, and I would enjoy it more as an instrumental project - perhaps even a B.J. Burton solo album. But if it was, I would like it alot. So credit to Low for reaching out into this sphere at this stage of their career at all. And I honestly hope they stick with it, because with some refinement it could get interesting.

 

 

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Released: 14 Sep 2018

Written By: Ruben Mita

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