Low | Double Negative
Sub Pop Records (LP/CD/CS/DL)
Review by Darren McClure
25 years into their career, Low release their twelfth album and do so by taking a major departure in sound design and aesthetics. The sparse, spacious rock compositions are still intact, but this time they’ve embraced new levels of distortion and noise to frame their songs. This is immediately evident on album opener Quorum, which grinds into life via a heavily distorted guitar loop that vibrates and grumbles under gated compression, slowly allowing Alan Sparhawk’s vocals to shine through. It’s a repetitive, head-nodding and speaker-shredding way to kick things off, but the second track runs with that repetition and heads straight to the dance floor. Dancing and Blood is all rhythmic pulse, recalling Andy Stott’s knackered take on house music. The lumpen kicks are layered with guitars, which Mimi Parker’s ethereal vocals propel forward slowly into a narcotic witch house haze until at the half way point it suddenly dissolves into a sustained ambience that leaves the listener breathless for the rest of its duration.
This swinging contrast between noise and ambience is the most startling aspect about the LP, but the trademark melodies of the band are still here, albeit buried deep in the mix. It takes repeated listens for them to fully reveal themselves. This is certainly apparent on Always Trying To Work It Out, where sluggish, reversed chords overlay Parker and Sparhawk’s harmonies, before being imploded by a wave of static and distortion, only to suddenly retreat and expose the original song again. This is followed by The Son, The Sun, where a low frequency rumble ushers in a mesmerizing soundscape akin to Thomas Koner’s iciest work, the dual vocals completely adrift in an ocean of reverb.
There are of course moments when it feels more like their previous work, and the avalanche of noise subsides and a track of bare bones beauty appears. Dancing And Fire is a simple guitar song in comparison to these more abstract tracks, featuring Sparhawk’s vocals very much to the fore, with Parker’s adding a celestial backdrop. But it’s those crunchier, more distorted elements that Double Negative will be remembered for. These ideas have been investigated previously by Low. On The Great Destroyer they expanded their sound palette and played with listeners’ expectations to mixed results. This album however soars because of the experimentation, not despite it. It feels like the record is reacting to a world of weird distortion, that reality isn’t the same as usual so why should the new Low album be?
The final track, Disarray, sums up this notion in both its title and execution. Again, a fuzzed-up guitar sequence marches onwards as the vocals this time question the idea of truth. More than likely a comment on Trumpian double speak, but then again maybe that’s too simple a reading. The track ends in that same guitar loop filtering down it’s aggression a little to pitter out into silence.
Perhaps the LP is a mirror reflecting the strange days that the world is in, it’s true that art responds to the times. And it wouldn’t be the first time for their recorded work to be inspired by social themes, such as Drums and Guns which was inspired in part by the Iraq war. So that may well be the background of Double Negative, but sonically it’s simply a real achievement. For a band so far into their career, it’s rare to take such a chance, to do something so different and succeed so well. That risky balancing act of spinning plates both caustic and soothing ensures this album works as a cohesive whole, with tracks transitioning into each other in such a sublime way that it’s hard to know when one finishes and the next one starts. It needs to be played in context, listened to from start to finish to appreciate its strength, then listened to again, and again.