Their 2018 release Double Negative portrayed a defeatist perspective on the overwhelming and suffocating static of modernity, yet when creating their latest release HEY WHAT, Alan Sparhawk of Duluth-based band LOW said, “I want to see technology break as much as it has broken me.”
LOW’s expansion into glitch industrial hymns is the logical trajectory for a band with such an intuitive sonic perspective. Throughout their many years making music, they’ve perpetually pushed themselves beyond their conceptual boundaries as they have developed their creative output to distill the current cultural mood into high-quality music.
Their latest record HEY WHAT debuted this September through Sub Pop records. The opening track “White Horses” may make you double-check that your headphones haven’t blown out. Within seconds of the beginning of the record LOW boldly demonstrates their new control over technology with visceral compressed industrial noise. They dive deeper into the static on Double Negative, this time forgoing acoustic guitars in favor of power electronics.
Throughout the record, the peaks of distorted white noise waves serve as immersive foundations for Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals. A wintery minimalist sonic landscape evokes the essence of the grueling season in their home state of Minnesota, an essence that distorts their sound into a myriad of greys. But don’t be fooled, the atmosphere is not an aimless wall of sound, instead it crescendos, pulsates, and dissolves into icy vocal harmonies throughout the 46-minutes of the record. Even the cover itself shows us the textured minutiae of greys, a representation of the depth of the record’s post-industrial sound.
Apart from the opening track, “White Horses,” side A of HEY WHAT falls slightly flat in comparison to the dramatic impact of side B. Track five, “Hey,” is a cryptic hymn backed by trippy distorted synths. The pair sing about driving past Michigan and Lake, perhaps about the Michigan Street pass under Lake Ave in their home city of Duluth, MN. Or perhaps about the busy intersection of Michigan Ave and Lake Street in my home city of Chicago, IL. Regardless, the subtle yet vague devastation that undergirds this track is very reminiscent of sterile cold Midwest winters that seem to inspire this record as a whole, and listening to this track transports me to the beautiful eeriness of midnight snowfall on empty streets.
The abrasive and apocalyptic noise of track nine “More” is another standout moment on the record. Similar to the second verse of track seven, “Days Like These,” Sparhawk and Parker’s harmonies become engulfed by the grating bass, their bold vocal performances belting “I should have asked for more than what I got” encapsulate the dire urgency at the heart of HEY WHAT.
The brashness of “More” ends suddenly, yet seamlessly transitions into the record’s closing ballad, “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off).” It begins with a minimal landscape of chilling vocal harmonies and a delicate arrangement of strings that descends into electronic noise as the pair bluntly sings “And I know what they want, to forget their hurt.” As the screeching noise increases, the album reaches its crescendo as a vast, booming drum beat appears on the songscape’s horizon along with the pair’s final declaration: “It must be wearing off.”
A veteran band like LOW can rarely keep reinventing themselves with such vibrancy. Their commitment to an ever-evolving uncompromising vision is second to none — it’s one skill to be innovative and avant-garde but it’s an entirely different, more difficult skill to consolidate that avant-garde messiness into a cohesive and digestible sound, a skill which LOW masterfully executes on HEY WHAT.
score — 8.5/10
favorite tracks — hey, days like these, more