When Alan Sparhawk’s searing straight-toned tenor begins Low’s latest album Drums and Guns with “All the soldiers / are all going to die,” it’s pretty damn clear the next 45 minutes of your life are going to get a little dark.
This premonition is confirmed when percussionist/vocalist Mimi Parker establishes the 6/8 funeral march with a tempo so slow it becomes eerily easy to envision a group of black-clad, bowed-head mourners progressing in step to the bass and snare drum pulse.
Although starting an album with a song that repeats how “All the pretty people” and “All the babies” “are all going to die” might seem off-putting to the Low virgin, after 14 years of music making, the group sure isn’t bent on appealing to the masses. Since its 1996 success with The Curtain Hits the Cast, Low has been known for its sedate, down-tempo and harmonically dense music. Too minimalist to be indie-rock, too dissonant and vocally centered to be post-rock, Low has been categorized as one of the pioneers of the poorly named subgenre “slowcore.”
And now, 11 years, five albums and two bass players later, Low has retained its defining style while unfolding its edges, tearing open a few seams and unfurling an intensity that once brewed within innocuous crescendos. The first track, “All the Pretty People,” isn’t the only song that pummels your conscious ear with solemn, dismal angst. If you’re looking to be mollified by Low’s gentle, simple and paradoxically minor warmth, then this isn’t the album for you. Even though the music may be simple and predominantly minor, Drums and Guns is anything but gentle and warm.
The closest the album gets to warmth (or, rather, the farthest is gets from bleakness) is “Belarus.” With Parker’s delicate vocal harmonies and winsome strings sample, this song stands as a fragile blade of hope amidst despondency. It’s quickly trodden on, however, by the melancholic descending organ line in “Breaker,” the eerie lyrical drug burdens in “Dragonfly” and the grave battle march and wrenchingly dissonant harmonies in “Sandinista.”
But even if the first half of Drums and Guns is grim, at least its lyrical and melodic darkness are congruent. When the words “Come clean and off with your head” follow an upbeat bass line and drum-loop intro in “Always Fade,” the somber trance that Low spends five songs creating breaks down and loses momentum. This discordance is worsened when out of nowhere the band decides to throw in “Hatchet” – a catchy tune with a lighthearted melody and witty lyrics – which would have been appropriate on one of their more guitar-driven albums. But here, amid electronified poison, killing, tragedy and suffering, the song just gets in the way of Low’s attempt to create an album that is far from cheery.
Many people might be turned off at the prospect of an album that makes them feel nervous by the end, but the fact that Drums and Guns is actually able to do that is impressive in itself.
There is something provocative in Sparhawk and Parker’s haunting harmonies when they sing “Don’t act so innocent / I’ve seen you pound your fist into the earth / and I’ve read your books / seems that you could use another fool.” Brooding within their darkness isn’t unabashed anger or depression, but something deeper, something rooted in a frighteningly vulnerable introspection, something that needs 45 minutes to be slowly and meticulously articulated.
Rating: 3 out of 5