It’s been two years since Baltimore’s Lower Dens released debut album Twin-Hand Movement to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, despite the impressive first LP, Lower Dens – now a five-piece with added keyboardist Carter Tanton – still remain criminally unknown.
The fact that lead singer and guitarist Jana Hunter was the first artist to release a record on Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong label is often mentioned in the same breath as the band. But beyond that, you would be hard pushed to find many people who have actually heard of Lower Dens.
The main problem is that in a world where everything requires an instant impact, Lower Dens use restraint. As such, their music doesn’t really lend well to widespread recognition. It certainly isn’t the sort of thing that’s going to budge Coldplay off the dinner party playlist. Instead, Lower Dens are more complicated, more awkward than that. Their music is often simultaneously gritty and sparse with the roaming guitars creating tense atmospherics.
And that atmosphere is present second time around on the band’s new album, entitled Nootropics. Opening track Alphabet Song ticks along with a steady, but finicky beat, while the guitars twang and whine throughout. The uncomfortable tones provide the basis for Hunter’s intoxicating, alluring and dusky voice that complements the patient, slow-building layers of the song so well.
The first single from the album, Brains, is another perfect example of the band’s fondness for concentrating on drawn-out and measured instrumentation. The repetitive metronomic beat, sprawling guitars and wavering electronics give the song a surprisingly epic feel, with whispery vocals intertwined seamlessly as if they were just another instrument.
The mechanical beat runs straight into the next track, the completely instrumental Stem, which highlights the need to listen to the whole of Nootropics as one. It’s an enveloping experience, not an album to dip in and out of.
The two-part Lion In Winter emphasizes this better than anywhere else on the album. Pt. 1 is virtually just quiet introspective atmospherics, before Pt. 2 weaves in with an odd recurring synth and steady beat. It’s an unusual pair of songs and while they are unlikely to be to everyone’s liking, they demonstrate Lower Dens’ willingness to experiment and take risks with their sound.
Yet the quintet are at their best when guitars are at the forefront, such as on the infectious and dreamy Propagation. The dulled monotoned guitar is reminiscent of Warpaint, creating a feeling of helplessness before sucking you in with its heady atmospherics, as Hunter sings: “Population incandescent / all roads lead here / propagation.” It’s undoubtedly the highlight of the album, with a fiendishly alluring quality.
The album title itself refers to Lower Dens’ interest in the use of technology to extend human capabilities – or transhumanism, to be exact – yet this idea is as important to the sound of the album as it is the name. Nootropics feels emotionless and bleak at times, with the added electronic influence to the band’s shoegaze sound giving the album the semblance of a dystopian soundtrack. The 12-minute closer, In The End Is The Beginning, demonstrates this effectively, with its industrial, repetitive sound only lifted by Hunter’s stirring vocal.
In many ways, Nootropics is not a massive departure from what Lower Dens achieved on Twin-Hand Movement. It’s subtle, moody and – at times – ethereal. But whereas Twin-Hand Movement had moments of magic that stood out from the rest, the band’s sophomore album should be appreciated as a whole. Lowers Dens’ second LP is one that requires great patience. However, if you’re willing to put the effort in, then you will be rewarded with an achingly beautiful and immersive album.