The War in Duluth

Low fights for aesthetic freedom

When established musicians deviate from an expected aesthetic, they often polarize audiences. Radiohead released its highly experimental departure Kid A in 2000, for example, and critics called it everything from "commercial suicide" to "the most eccentric album ever to debut at No. 1." Low (which, incidentally, toured with Radiohead in 2003) now finds itself in that very position of challenging its faithful. The band, celebrated throughout the '90s for its graceful minimalism, is confronting listeners with uncharacteristic buoyancy and diverse instrumentation on Drums and Guns. Reviews of the new disc range from blithe acceptance to flustered uncertainty. At its core, however, Low has always created music that values defying expectations over simply entertaining its listeners.

The recent confusion about Low stems from the Duluth trio's beginnings spent cementing a gentle approach: slow tempos; quiet harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and his wife, drummer Mimi Parker; and minimal instrumentation. This positioned Low as a restrained, monastic reaction to the grunge music that dominated rock at the time. As the years went on, Low tinkered with small directional shifts, adding fuzzed-out bass on Things We Lost in the Fire and distorted guitar on Trust, hinting at a fuller sound without freeing the band from its "slowcore" label.

Low brings strife to light on Drums and Guns
Tim Soter
Low brings strife to light on Drums and Guns

More dramatic changes came when Low released 2005's The Great Destroyer. The album held a raucous wake for Low's stylistic legacy, dividing loyalists with thunderous rock, up-tempo pop numbers, and a general nod to volume and density that stood in stark contrast to Low's existing catalog.

Drums and Guns continues down that path of reinvention, reveling in electronic flourishes, mangled guitars, and sequenced loops. Eccentric influences figure prominently on the album, and there's no suggestion of Low returning to "delicate" material anytime soon.

Sparhawk says that for many bands, switching up the sound is a natural progression, but for Low it was an intense decision-making process. "It's like realizing you're an addict," he admits. "You realize how much you're a slave to habit, and how much you take for granted. There's safety in being able to just fiddle around with new sounds every once in a while, but with Drums and Guns we wanted to fully step off that ledge, to really make something interesting happen."

Drums and Guns uses a shrapnel-storm of military snares and flimsy loops to create ragged studies of human cruelty. "Most of the songs deal with the question of murder and war and how a person justifies the decision to take someone's life," says Sparhawk. Songs like "Breaker" build on a foundation of sharp handclaps and droning organ while Sparhawk sings, "Our bodies break/ And the blood just spills and spills." "Pretty People" and "Dragonfly" crackle with patches of experimental guitar and disenchanted lyrics. "I was hoping it wouldn't come across as a war protest record," says Sparhawk of Drums and Guns. "It's more that I just feel passionate about asking why we seem to gravitate towards destroying each other and justifying decisions that are totally wrong."

One song, "Murderer," taken from a rare vinyl 10-inch of the same name and reworked for Drums and Guns, describes a man's bargain with his maker, moving from the suggestion of murder for hire to snide confrontation: "Don't act so innocent/ I've seen you pound your fist into the Earth," sings Sparhawk, joined in chilling, gorgeous harmony by Parker. It's a track that, in spite of the sonic metamorphoses surrounding it, remains the unadulterated essence of Low: as beautiful as it is difficult, as thorny as it is sublime.

Fourteen years ago, crowds walked out of Low shows, baffled by the trio's unapologetic slowness and quiet. These days, the band confronts loyalists with volume and sonic complexity. In this way at least, Low remains unchanged in demanding the full attention of its listeners, and rewarding only the patient.

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