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Duluth band Low returns with ‘Drums & Guns,’ an album that speaks of wartime with lullabies

by Haily Gostas

If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that the truly terrifying moments can often be accomplished with little to no sound. The final jolt might come with its share of Hell’s bells and whistles, but the initial attack comes simply, stealthily and with all the disturbing grace and beauty of a quiet explosion.

Low CD Release with Charlie Parr and Loney, Dear

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: First Avenue Mainroom, 701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $12 adv. / $14 door, 18-plus, (612) 338-8388

Duluth slowcore outfit Low has continued to sharpen this looming blade since their 1993 emergence into an era where the heavy obviousness of grunge received top billing. For the most part, they’ve never strayed far from their trademark brand of sleepy minimalist soundscapes, and they’ve never really had to.

Any and all anguish its members have encountered, witnessed or dreamed up – from mental breakdowns to murder to the fact that no one knows where we’re going or why we’re in this hand basket – is tackled with a darkly subdued swirl of prettiness, like a storm beneath the calm.

Their eighth full-length album “Drums & Guns” tears away at this idea until all that’s left is a mangled mass of blood and bone, until all familiar, friendly arrangements have been robbed of their opulence. It is the soundtrack for shell shock, for elegant hysteria, for a world imagined as nothing but ravaged frontiers plagued by an omnipotent menace. For most bands, this sort of rawness wouldn’t be anything terribly extraordinary, but for Low and their time-honored approach to trauma, it is a revelation.

Thankfully, “Drums & Guns” never preaches itself as a blatantly political record (even if the title itself makes like a triumphant call to arms). The lyrics, in their barebones brilliance, are ambiguous enough to narrate an escalation of inner turmoil as well as a war-torn state, but one is definitely invited to jump to conclusions.


ALBUM: “Drums & Guns”
LABEL: Sub-Pop

And where the message is disquieting, the sound is almost comforting in its hypnotically slow exploration of atmosphere. From the feedback-addled melody of the opening track “Pretty People” (which claims, quite brashly, that we’re all “gonna die”), to “Dragonfly’s” jangling construction site machine sample behind slow-burning laments of addiction, to the haunted house harmonies and orchestral sequencing of “Belarus,” Low makes every single layer count even in its slightness.

Oddly enough, the record is backed by a series of drum loops better found on a Casio keyboard than an actual set. First single “Breaker” builds from one of these very basic beats to nothing more than hushed handclaps and a droning progression of one-finger organ notes. Voices wail of breaking bodies and bloodied hands at all the right moments, morphing the track from a distant background distraction to one of “Drums & Guns’ ” more arresting examples of Low’s stripped-down style.

The gorgeous vocal duets between guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker are, like usual, Low’s finest, purest element. The two, who first met in fourth grade and have since married, sound as though they were born to sing together. And when they do, it almost seems as if they’re singing softly right into your ear – Sparhawk with his sour rocker howl and Parker with her gentle, supportive accompaniment (which gets a chance to shine on its own throughout the excellent “Dust on the Window”) – and the effect only adds to the beautiful creepiness that runs rampant on “Drums & Guns.”

The album begins its deliberate exit with “Murderer,” a pulsating sonic swell that, in its understated urgency and confrontational sneer (“Don’t act so innocent / I’ve seen you pound your fist into the Earth”), leaves the flesh full of goosebumps. “Violent Past” closes the casket with a booming, funereal organ chorus, but not without pondering one last time precisely how we’ve come to reach such a bitter end.

Where 2005’s “The Great Destroyer” was a great departure filled with lush tangents and a slightly faster tempo (though for Low, that’s a relative term), “Drums & Guns'” is raw and restricted to just a few key sounds to properly underscore its dark themes. Still, it is wholeheartedly determined in its simplicity and the idea that less is more even when it’s one band against the world. This is the timeless (and timely) art that wartime, in whatever sense, can breed.