The humble Duluth heroes return behind their most sonically punishing album yet. Info/tix
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Duluth-based Low, the project of couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and their 10th anniversary with bassist Steve Garrington. Over time the band has evolved away from its slowcore beginnings (Low's debut, 1994's I Could Live In Hope, is a landmark of that delicate, melodic subgenre). And while this year's Double Negative is sonically like nothing Low has ever made before—it's caustic, inky, heavily noisy, and experimental—it is very much a return to the minimalist sensibilities that have popped up throughout the band's career. Each track sounds and feels full but relatively uncomplicated, simple in its instrumentation and effects.
The album was recorded at Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver, Big Red Machine, Volcano Choir) April Base studio in Eau Claire, and produced by BJ Burton, who has worked with Vernon, as well as other genre-bending acts such as Sylvan Esso, St. Vincent, Megafaun, and Hippo Campus. Low has joined forces with Burton before, on the 2015 album Ones & Sixes. While that record certainly bears his imprint in fuzz, beats, beeps, synthesized heavy bass and percussion, those sounds never really compete with Low’s signature melodic arrangements and the vocal interplay between Sparhawk and Parker. But on Double Negative, the band members share and sometimes give over entirely the reigns to Burton. Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals, if they’re not veiled in vocoder or another filter, fight to distinguish themselves amid Burton's electronic gale. Only a few tracks sound like the work of a three-piece band, and even on those, Burton’s synthesized components are in the wings, waiting to take over again.
“Quorum,” the first of a triptych of tracks released before the full album drops September 14, is lurching and brutal, so textured it feels as if you could run your hands over its rough peaks. The lyrics add to its foreboding: “It started up with nothing / To let them win the war / So fast and quick we ran / I couldn’t help but notice.” With those words and a song title that seems to reference a political assembly, it’s no coincidence the band has been at work on the record since the fall of 2016. Parker’s vocals are distorted, like a robot underwater, on “Dancing And Blood,” a pulsing swell that ends with more than two minutes of layered Gregorian chant-esque harmonies. “Fly,” the most accessible of the three, could almost fit in with the expansive pop beauty of 2011's C’mon or the relatively straightforward rock of 2005's The Great Destroyer. Parker’s higher-register vocals soar, and it’s the first time we can catch a glimpse Garrington’s impactful bassline over the melee, but Burton’s shimmering pulse ultimately drowns them out.
While the new record may not appeal to old guard loyalists—it has more to do with Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Portishead’s Third in scope and ethos than anything in Low’s previous catalog, going beyond even 2007's feedback-heavy Drums And Guns—it proves that Low remains one of the most fearless, uncompromising bands in rock. Burton’s heavy hand at times makes the band nearly unrecognizable, but Double Negative still makes clear evolutionary sense. Rarely does one see a longtime, consistently lauded act refuse to be typecast, even at their own hand. Low sheds all sense of familiarity on this record in order to rise from the ashes, emerging more themselves than ever before. —Katie Hutchinson