‘Glacial’ is – alongside ‘ethereal’, ‘spectral’ and ‘angular’ – one of those words that’s curiously popular among music critics, despite being rarely called upon in everyday usage. It’s typically attached to any kind of music that affects a certain inscrutability and chilliness: it’s reasonable to guess that the music of The Knife has been described as ‘glacial’ quite a few times.
Whether Western Lows – the name given to the latest project of Athens, Georgia-based musician Jack Burnside – named their debut album Glacial as a music journalist-baiting move is unknown (and, let’s face it, highly unlikely). But, even so, glacial (the word) isn’t the first word that springs to mind when listening to Glacial (the album). It’s more likely to be ‘comfy’, ‘familiar’ or – at worst – ‘derivative’ or ‘nondescript’. Fortunately, the former occasions far outweigh the latter.
Across Glacial’s 10 tracks, Western Lows touch upon the sounds of some of indie rock’s most enduring bands. Opener Grapevine’s drowsy melody recalls Mazzy Star; Swan Fields has a soaring, e-bowed guitar line that brings to mind Sigur Rós; Icicles’ vaguely gothy inflections are reminiscent of The Cure; Last Known Rivers and Lazy feature the tremelo arm-assisted ‘slide’ effect so beloved of My Bloody Valentine; while Burnside’s vocals throughout are redolent of the much-missed Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse.
Those shoegazy influences are, overall, the most dominant to be found on Glacial. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Burnside’s previous band was Mezzanine Owls, who achieved cult success on the Californian ‘dreampop’ scene. But, unlike the work of Kevin Shields and company, the production and arrangements on Glacial are polite and tasteful rather than raging and turbulent.
Fortunately, Burnside’s strong melodic sensibilities ensure that Glacial is never a chore to listen to. The more uptempo tracks Last Known Rivers, Swan Fields, the indie rock power ballad I Will and (especially) Floods all boast strong, nagging tunes. The two weakest tracks are, wisely, tucked away in the middle of the second half: the chorus of Gave Away simply repeats its title in lieu of an actual hook, while Tall Glass Church is instantly forgettable, despite a lyrical contribution from Burnside’s fellow Athenian Michael Stipe, of R.E.M.
Overall, Glacial is a technically proficient, eminently listenable indie rock album. It could be argued that those are two-a-penny these days, but that doesn’t mean Glacial should be dismissed out of hand.