Drums and Guns
When a Low album starts off by proclaiming that soldiers, babies, poets, liars, and pretty people “are all gunna die”, you begin to wonder if some mistake has been made somewhere. Surely this must be another of Alan Sparhawk's sideprojects...? But, no, the cover clearly says Low on it. “Well, that was a strange opener, let's see how the next one goes,” you mutter to yourself.
Soon: “...what the hell is with all these loops? Where are the guitars and Mimi Parker's stark drumming? Boy, this is a weird one.”
As alluded to in the last essay, Drums and Guns is a very different sounding record from what Low had done before, even on the former big departure The Great Destroyer. Excepting 'Shots & Ladders' from Trust, some obscure split singles/collaborations, a remix records, and the underrated Songs For A Dead Pilot EP, Low had never explored this sort of musical territory before, doubly so on a main album. If The Great Destroyer could be accurately-but-lazily described as Low's rock album, then Drums and Guns could similarly be labelled their electronic album. Really, the nearest comparison I can think of is the sound of the more experimental/electronic/minimalist tracks from Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. 'Take Your Time' is practically a Radiohead cover, so closely does the piano and tense atmosphere recall that band.
Whether Drum and Guns was a reaction to the second Gulf War (doubtful, since it was a couple years too late to be relevant) or the reception to The Great Destroyer (methinks no; they don't seem like the kind of band to do what they think people will like), Low were moved to craft songs which ooze along on currents of discrete loops, fractured guitar textures, and barely-there drumming. This record's closest kin is found in the less industrial and intense moments from Scott Walker's Tilt and The Drift, the parts where he sounds like he's brooding alone in abandoned cathedrals or muttering eulogies for civilization while the last television and computer screens in some kind of futuristic urban wasteland are flickering toward death, displaying only static or random colors. What I mean is, it may sound like Radiohead circa Kid A, but it feels more lime Scott Walker's recent work.
At the same time, the lyrics tend toward a more outward looking posture than I'm aware Low have had before or since. Even mid-album trifle 'The Hatchet', which helps relieve the tension of the rest of the album and calls back to the funner moments from The Great Destroyer, ostensibly is aimed at some other unnamed band. At any rate, without a doubt a theme of violence runs throughout the record; after all, underneath the olive branch of 'The Hatchet' is the copycat charge that the unnamed band's records “sound a lot like mine.” The brief 'Your Poison' could pass for a 60s political folk song, directly addressing the listener with the old fashioned terminology “good people.” And 'Murderer', if taken at face value, reads like a disturbing prayer from a fanatical/fundamentalist Christian, ready to give back violence in some kind of retribution or revenge against perceived worthy-of-punishment evil in the world.
Drums and Guns is the kind of record which sounds completely original and like a bolt-out-of-the-blue unless you are intimately familiar with the band it comes from and/or the album's influences. Even with reference points like modern day Scott Walker and '00-era Radiohead, though, this music is the most conceptually interesting and accomplished of Low's releases from the last decade. I would still waffle between this and Things We Lost In The Fire as best record from this time frame, but Drums and Guns is much more ambitious without its reach ever exceeding its grasp. If we can posit The Great Destroyer as a kind of shattering of any preconceived notions about who Low are and what kind of music they can make, then Drums and Guns is the sound of the aftermath, fragmented shards of sound that don't qualify as rock or 'slowcore.'
While this is certainly a dark and sometimes disturbing album ('Violent Past' alludes to some kind of strangulation taking place), it still manages to avoid the morose, melancholy, and leaden feel of Low's early music. This is partially thanks to Drums and Guns being the bands shortest album, though mostly it's thanks to the way the band never lets a song drag on too long or have too skeletal of a structure. How much of the indistinct sounds and loops which fill up the background are due to Dave Fridmann is hard to say, though I would imagine he had to have some input, since Drums and Guns sounds very little like the overdriven, raucous The Great Destroyer. In fact, despite the lyrics and droning, distorted organ, 'Violent Past' makes for an uplifting, optimistic sounding album closer.
This sense of optimism, along with a more immediate and melodic aesthetic, would serve the band well, after a four year break, on their 2011 release, C'mon. But that is something I'll be tackling in a forthcoming review...