The dreamily meandering minimalism of Low may have started as a provocative joke, but at its best the band encapsulates the power of restraint.
Pump down the volume
When the revolutionary pairing that was rock'n'roll ditched its subversive, swinging second half to become the four letter monolith that is ROCK, it acquired certain connotations - about the size and shape of a band's ambition, about volume, and above all about yearning to go to the extremes, wherever they might be. From the conservative, masculine, blues-influenced rock of The Faces to the outré, gender-bending experimentalism of Throbbing Gristle, two cultural forces of nature otherwise in total opposition to each other, the one shared trope, and sense of identity, is a desire to "rock out". Push the volume higher, increase the intensity, accelerate the speed, make the feedback deafening: let's lose ourselves in the borderline masochistic collective delirium of maximal noise.
The desire to journey toward sonic extremities shows up in every kind of rock music, to a greater or lesser extent: it's an idea which is foregrounded in both the cartoonish postures of heavy metal and the pious outsider sincerity of hardcore punk. It crops up in countless Hollywood films as an instant shorthand for youthful rebellion: teenage protagonists are told to "turn that damn music down!" In its 1950s guise, exemplified by the likes of James Dean, rock'n'roll was subversive in its very essence; as that power dissipated and evolved, rock prized sonic excess as proof of its challenge to existing power structures, even if those stifling, oppressive hegemonies were simply your parents.
The power of volume is perfectly encapsulated in the parodic Wayne's World and Bill and Ted films of the 1990s: both very funny satires about slacker teenagers channelling their frustrations through deafening electric guitars. The principle approaches its platonic ideal in the spoof documentary This Is Spinal Tap, which follows a credulous (and terrible) British heavy rock band. All guitar amplifiers have dials which run from 1-10, but Spinal Tap achieve a symbolic victory in the name of excess: they've had their amplifiers modified so the numbers go from 1-11. "Is that actually any louder though?" asks the interviewer. "Well yeah - it's one louder, isn't it?"
In the early 1990s loud rock reclaimed its place as the soundtrack of the youth zeitgeist in America, thanks to grunge - bands like Nirvana situated their guitar-heavy sound in cacophonic distortion, fuzz and reverb. Their denim jeans and checked shirts were ripped and torn, their politics were messy - a mixture of earnestness and utter cynicism - and musically too, grunge worked from an unashamedly shredded sonic palette, sublimating youthful angst by making an unholy racket. "It is now time, to make it unclear/to write off lines, that don't make sense" Kurt Cobain sang on 1991's On A Plain, encapsulating the spirit of the age.
Against this backdrop, one band poked a tiny shaft of light through the clouds of guitar feedback. Low emerged in 1993 from the northern American state of Minnesota. They took an oppositional stance to heavy rockers, playing as slowly and quietly as they could. It started as a mischievous way to antagonise grunge and metal fans in the band's hometown of Duluth. The trio, led by the husband and wife vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, would deliberately turn all the dials down on their amplifiers; when other bands, notably Codeine and Red House Painters, became associated with this drifting, delicate sound, the genre names "slowcore" and "sadcore" were coined, a sarcastic inversion of the "hardcore" style that many of the acts had grown up in. It took a while for people to accommodate this approach, as Mark Kozelek from the Red House Painters recalled: "I remember people coming up to us after shows and telling us they'd been warned that we were really slow and to bring a pillow and a blanket."
Low's consistently terrific albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s won acclaim for exactly this quality - this sound that seems to hover between wakefulness and sleep. Low's music is like a lucid dream, an intensified version of reality, delivered with a lullaby's grace and delicacy. "I closed my eyes/like Marvin Gaye" they sang memorably on 2002's In The Drugs. Theirs was not, of course, an entirely new innovation - The Velvet Undergound alternated inventive uses of noise and feedback with the sparse beauty of tracks like Sunday Morning. The difference is that Low's clean, picked guitars, lingering notes and echoing drums, often caressed with brushes rather than pounded with sticks, became a style all of their own.
Their ninth and latest studio album, C'mon, was recorded in a former church with a large, vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows and a 100-year-old pipe organ that features on the record. This sense of spacious grandeur and intensity of religious togetherness suits the band (Sparhawk and Parker are famously Mormons). As Sparhawk reflected in an interview last year: "It can be overwhelming… you can see your life flash before your eyes. It's one of the last incidences in our culture where you can get that many people to sing along - at sports games, and in church." Low's 1999 Christmas EP, a mix of seasonal standards and new compositions, made perfect sense.
C'mon is an album that could be claimed by the religious and the humanist alike, because it is ultimately an album of love songs; paeans of gentle reassurance and heartbreak that drift in and out of focus. In less deft hands, the beautifully somnolent Try To Sleep could be a glockenspiel-led dirge, but as ever, Sparhawk's vocal elevates it, crooning half-formed thoughts at glacial pace: "Inside a dream/You take a stand/Try to sleep/Don't look at the camera". Both Sparhawk and Parker effectively sing in slow-motion. On You See Everything, Parker draws out each word as the piano and gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar rumble on calmly in the background - it's dreamlike, and the dreams are stately, majestic ones.
The critically acclaimed Canadian band Arcade Fire have derived great success recently from what is conceived as a zeitgeist-capturing aesthetic: specifically, lost souls wrestling with their own fragility via emotional bombast and musical grandeur - filling stadia (sonically, and literally) with a kind of humane, perhaps humanist warmth and self-reassurance. In this fallen world, it seems to say, there can still be spiritual redemption. Low's aesthetic is very similar - and aside from the fact that they are practising Mormons, far more convincing; at their best, they deliver on Arcade Fire's promise.
Over the years the occasional crunch of an electric guitar or a discreet delay pedal have crept into Low's music; it's now more complicated than the purist, oppositional minimalism they started out with. But the spirit of slowcore still prevails, emboldened by the occasional, limited indulgence in volume. Nothing But Heart, one of many highlights on C'mon, starts with a very un-slowcore fuzz-guitar intro, reminiscent of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. After 40 seconds this drops out and we get a wonderful eight-minute musical narrative, propelled by keening slide guitar and the gentle dusting of a cymbal brush, its momentum building into a kind of universe-scanning sense of awe. Evoking previous Low epics like Dinosaur Act or (That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace, Sparhawk repeats "I'm nothing but heart" over and over, with slowly accelerating volume. Eventually he's bawling, a voice crying out in the wilderness with only a wild guitar solo for company. After six minutes of this defiant, lovelorn vocal solo, he's joined by his wife's voice, echoing the repeated refrain, while another layer of her vocal posts a countervailing melody, and the transcendent squall fills the room - it's a breathtaking climax.
At moments like this the provocative premise of Low's early gigs - turning the volume down to wind up the grunge kids - is transformed from something flippant to something magnificent, and profound. Low's glory is harnessing the inherent power of restraint, the impact of tenderness.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.