The Constant Face of the Unknown – Low LP review

Low – HEY WHAT (Sub-Pop)

Last time out, in ‘Double Negative’, Low delivered the most extreme record of their career, placing a set of fragile tunes within waves of distortion to the extent of sometimes almost obliterating the melodies. It was a record that made a virtue out of smashing the convention of recording without clipping the input – within my own collection about the only time I can remember a band consciously breaking that convention was the Delgados on the intro of ‘The Light Before We Land’.

‘Double Negative’ was therefore a remarkable record for any band to deliver, never mind one well into its third decade of existence. Being honest though, whilst it was an easy record to admire for its boldness, it was also one that was much harder to love.

Its approach could also have been a dead end. After all, if you’ve broken a taboo in such spectacular fashion, how much mileage can be left in moving further along that route? Yet, remarkably, the new album, ‘HEY WHAT’, not only picks up that challenge but in fact integrates the approach fully into Low’s songwriting.

Most folk’s first experience of the record would have come via lead single, ‘Days Like These’ which starts with an almost acapella intro albeit Alan’s vocal is compressed fairly hard but without distortion. A single guitar and some spectral keyboards are added in the lead-up to the second verse before thunderous distorted organ is pushed in behind the voice without warning. It’s just one of many occasions when the record makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

‘Days Like These’ acts as an accessible introduction to the record for the uninitiated but it’s not the full story as its use of distortion is understated and ‘HEY WHAT’ is a far more challenging prospect than ‘Days …’ might suggest. Whereas it sometimes felt that the songs were subservient to the noise on ‘Double Negative’, here the distortion is used to service rather than disrupt the songs.

In fact, the noise is used almost conventionally, replacing traditional rock instrumentation with a sometimes nightmare-ish orchestration which sounds like it was concocted in the depths of hell. But importantly, even if the backing is staccato and distorted, such as on the opening ‘White Horses’, the vocals are pushed to the front above the noise. That alone makes the record far more accessible.

Mixing noise and melody is undoubtedly a guiding principle of this set of songs, but it’s not deployed throughout. At its purest, ‘HEY WHAT’ is stripped back to Alan and Mimi’s vocals, whether it be on ‘All Night’ or the opening verse of ‘Days Like These’ and even by Low’s standards there’s a rare beauty on display here.

But that beauty is only part of the story as the underlying songs are, to these ears at least, only enhanced by the use of the noise whether it be for the waves of feedback on ‘Disappearing’ or the mutated washes of sound that ebb and flow throughout ‘Hey’, reminiscent to an extent of MBV.

‘HEY WHAT’ is also essentially one piece, with songs merging into each other in different ways. There’s the way that ‘Disappearing’ melts into ‘Hey’ whilst the distorted rhythm of ‘White Horses’ mutates into the intro for ‘I Can Wait’. But in the latter case, it’s not done just to provide a transition between songs – the backing to ‘I Can Wait’ continues to mutate throughout the song. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything quite like it before.

Most striking of all though is the way the monstrous, lurching riff for ‘More’ punches into the coda of ‘Don’t Walk Away’. Never mind the pinnacle of rock music, it’s quite possible that this moment constitutes the peak of all of human civilisation.

Ultimately though none of the sonic invention would make an emotional connection if the tunes weren’t up to scratch. Melodically, ‘Double Negative’ felt like Low’s world was in imminent danger of being overwhelmed, but ‘HEY WHAT’ instead feels life affirming.

And, no matter what else is going on, ‘HEY WHAT’ manages the neat trick of depositing the underlying songs themselves into your internal jukebox, often shorn of the noise.

It’s an absolutely extraordinary record that applies and twists the approach of the last album to produce something revelatory.

Simply glorious.

Live promotion for ‘HEY WHAT’ kicks off in the US and Canada in March before hopping over the Atlantic towards the end of April for a run of dates in the UK and Europe which starts at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Monday 25 April. [Tickets]