The last time I saw Low, the late, lamented Atlanta bar the
Point was still open, Bob Mould was still touring, and Godspeed
You Black Emperor! were the unknown openers. I remember standing
towards the back of The Point, listening to the achingly slow
sounds of Low in a crowd so quiet that the I could clearly hear
the sounds of guitarist Alan Sparhawk's picks hitting the strings
of his guitar. It was a spellbinding show.
I probably wouldn't have made the effort to see them again
except that a friend is a big fan, and wanted to come from out
of town for this concert. I couldn't legitimately not go. The
most I did was make sure we got to the club late, in (secret)
hopes of missing the single opening band. This isn't to say
that I don't like Fridge; rather I hadn't heard of them. Therefore,
I was envisioning some mopey slowcore act from the upper Midwest.
The type of band that would remind me of some Elephant 6 reject,
only without the humor.
When we got to The Echo Lounge, I was pleased to see Fridge
was already playing (and we had missed nearly half their set).
However, I immediately realized that my preconceptions were
wrong - this band sounded vaguely like Mogwai or Tortoise or
one of the ubiquitous post-rock bands. Rats, I didn't actually
mean to miss something I might like (which goes to show I should
do some research before I judge a band, huh?). Anyway, for the
next 20 minutes or so, I watched Fridge, trying to think of
some way to describe them.
The term I eventually came up with was "free math." They had
the syncopated rhythms and discordant, angular riffs of a mathrock
band. However, they didn't seem to have a single, clear leader
within the band. Rather, each instrumentalist (drummer, bassist,
and guitarist/keyboardist) would dominate the song briefly,
before yielding to the next. The music seemed almost improvised,
although the complexity indicated that this had been rehearsed.
It was too busy to be beautiful, yet it was too passionate to
be precise. I enjoyed their set (and even bought their album
for the absent PostLibyan), and felt ashamed for having tried
to miss them.
After a short break, Low took the stage. From the first, they
primarily played material from their last two studio release,
Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire.
This probably isn't too surprising, but during these two albums,
the sound of the band has undergone something of a change: they've
become louder, faster, and have almost a rock edge about them.
Yes, the vocals of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk interweave
and play off each other in the same haunting way. And there
is still a precision to the musical construction that isn't
evident in many contemporary bands. But the overall changes
in the sound have removed the two elements which made their
earlier music so sublime.
First off, in the older material, Low played so very slowly
and you could hear each note distinctly. Concert wise, this
was always impressive because if one of them ever hit a wrong
note, it would hang over the venue, echoing, until it gradually
faded away. Now, in concert, there was enough amplification
and effect that you wouldn't notice if a guitar was slightly
out of tune, or the band was a little less than tight. Similarly,
during previous concerts, the band would play with the texture
of the songs -- changing volume and timbre throughout so that
the music would ebb and flow in a manner one could only expect
from a full symphony. And this too was missing from this performance.
While still boasting the intertwining vocals and relatively
sparse instrumentation, this concert simply didn't have the
same spine-tingling resonance that I expect from Low.
I pondered these conclusions as the Low played through their
hour long set. I enjoyed the music, and enjoyed watching them
play. But I wasn't so enthralled that I could ignore the couple
chatting loudly in Spanish behind me. And I wasn't almost afraid
to breathe -- afraid of making any sound which might distract
from the noise on the stage. However, during the encore, Low
reminded me of why I originally liked them. At that point, they
broke into Shame, a song off Long Division
(1995). For this one song, the tempo slowed, and the music became
almost silent. And all you could hear in The Echo Lounge was
the slight strumming of the guitar, the gentle brush of the
snare drum, and those amazing vocals.
And I sighed, feeling the bones in my spine vibrate, knowing
that this alone was one of the most beautiful sounds on Earth.