In 1994, the most punk rock thing you could have done was slow it down and turn off the distortion. The face of modern music was paved with distortion, noise, irony and chaos, vacating a void to be filled by a band with the audacity to play slow, graceful, pretty songs in defiance of the overdriven norm. For the better part of the ’90s, Low has been synonymous with slow (the two words even rhyme!), not because they’re timid or boring, but because they play by their own rules, throwing convention to the wind. And as time went by, they didn’t necessarily get any faster, but they got a lot heavier. “Dinosaur Act” from Things We Lost in the Fire and “Canada” from Trust are strong evidence for that, showing how thunderous a song can be when you don’t rush it.
Eleven years and seven albums into their career, Low hasn’t changed their position one bit. On The Great Destroyer, their new album, and first for Sub Pop, Low has sped up some of their material and turned the distortion up a little, but they’re still Low and the rules haven’t changed. If the buzzing keyboard and rumbling toms of “Monkey” sound jarring at first, well, it’s because it’s the closest the Duluth trio has ever come to playing rock music, as we know it.
For once, it seems, Low can finally shake the “slowcore” tag that consistently follows them. At one time, it may have made sense, but their last four albums have shown significant changes within the band. The lineup is the same, the basic aesthetic is the same and the melodies, as always, are graceful and angelic. But the band’s been playing with pedals, tempos and whatever else may throw a wrench into their system. Just as Low wasn’t comfortable following the norm in 1994, it would seem hypocritical to be bound by their own conventions. And as such, we’re given The Great Destroyer, an album that finds the band playing loud rock music, reverb-heavy ballads, spacey drone-fests, Chilton-worthy pop songs and huge, musical epics.
“Monkey” is the heaviest thing the band’s ever done, without a doubt, though still retains Low’s chilling sense of melody. During the chorus, when Alan Sparhawk croons, “tonight the monkey dies,” it’s the most sinister he’s ever sounded. “California” and “Just Stand Back” have radio-ready appeal as catchy pop singles. “On the Edge Of” is a reverb and tremelo-fueled southwestern rock waltz, while “Cue the Strings” is driven by a backwards-sounding mellotron, approaching almost Kid A levels of genre-bending art. The seven-minute epic “Broadway” seems to sum up where Low is right now. Catchy, but still identifiably Low, it’s a newly lighthearted sound (albeit an ambitious one) that finds Sparhawk and Mimi Parker asking, “where is the laughter?”
Low has clearly earned the right to do whatever the hell they please. Eleven years ago, nobody could have predicted what we now hear on The Great Destroyer. It was a gradual pace, to be certain, but Low has made it clear that they move at their own chosen speed. And at this point, it may take a while for everyone else to catch up.
Yo La Tengo – And then nothing turned itself inside-out
Ida – Heart Like a River
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.