For their eighth studio album, Duluth’s Low have, in many ways, returned to their “slowcore” roots (a term the band has actually always despised): slow tempos, minimalist arrangements, and the vocal harmonizing of married bandmates Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Drums & Guns is largely a repudiation of the guitar-rock, even pop-ish sensibilities that they brought to their prior record, 2005’s The Great Destroyer. Instead, in their second Sub Pop release, Low possess a pseudo-electronic, pseudo-techno, “slowly crashing waves” effect, which chills to the bone.
Low’s strength is in their unification of slow, methodic rhythms with unassuming, almost background compositions. Virtually every song on Drums & Guns has a haunting, even unnerving air. Added on to this are the vocals from Sparhawk and Parker, which throughout the entire album are strangely, but perhaps fittingly, mixed to be on only the right-side speaker. At their best, their voices can grip the listener like an old horror movie, using suspense, not special effects, to frighten even today’s splatter-jaded crowd.
Not every song reaches the levels of “Dragonfly,” “Take Your Time,” or “In Silence.” The rest, while effective (outside of the weak two opening tracks), are far too similar to one another. However, this wholly does not apply to the completely stand-out “Hatchet,” which combines an ideal mix of tempo and minimalism, while delivering some pitch-perfect irony of not only break-ups, make-ups, and rock ‘n’ roll feuds (“Let’s bury the hatchet/Like The Beatles and The Stones”), but even on Low’s own sound.
Following the decidedly mixed reviews for The Great Destroyer, and Sparhawk’s cancellation of the following tour mid-way through over mental health issues, it was very much up in the air where – and if – Low would find itself. Drums & Guns is a record that may disappoint some current fans, with its (literally) one-sided vocals, and their adoption of some slow but frightening indie-techno. But their skills with that sound rival other indie greats, and Low has deftly mixed this radio in with their established, slow, unpretentious vibe, for a very interesting release.