Live Music + Gig Reviews

Low @ Barbican, London

1 February 2019

Low (Photo by Nathan Keay)

Low (Photo: Nathan Keay)

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices harmonising in perfect balance surely constitutes one of the world’s purest and most beautiful sounds. When combined with the haunting, mesmerising grace of Low’s melancholy (but sometimes abrasive) music, it has made for one of the most doggedly consistent, yet subtly malleable small ensemble sounds. The evidence is not only in their now resilient and enduring catalogue of recordings, but also in their outstanding live performances, usually perched on a precipice between beauty and tempestuous drama. All this makes the band’s exploration of more sonically diffuse and abstract territory on last year’s Double Negative album more surprising. It won many accolades (not least of these being musicOMH’s album of the year) but also proved polarising.

It’s something of a deconstructed cheesecake, albeit an unusually successful one. Some signature aspects of the band’s sound are diminished in scale, for example the whisper and moan of Mimi Parker’s skeletal drum kit is often replaced with pulsating heartbeat drum machines. Elsewhere, many of the core elements of Low’s sound are present and correct, but they are refracted through a range of studio and electronic trickery. Parker and Sparhawk’s voices are often either treated or subsumed within the overall construction, creating what feels like a coherent suite of music rather than a collection of songs, a work that somehow manages to be both detached and overwhelming simultaneously.

Such a change in approach poses something of a quandary when it comes to the strategy underpinning live performances. The trio (Sparhawk and Parker with bassist Steve Garrington, who apparently played a key role on Double Negative) could have attempted to incorporate some of the manipulations and processes of the album into their live show, perhaps re-interpreting older material in the process. Alternatively, they could present the Double Negative material in a radically different manner, such that it could sit more comfortably alongside some selections from their back catalogue (albeit with a strong focus on more recent albums). It’s the latter option that Low have picked for this tour, although the results are far from conservative.

With most of the studio trickery eschewed, the mood and impact of Low’s live renditions from Double Negative are determined by the sounds that can be generated onstage by three musicians aided only by some multi-effects units for guitar and bass. Classic rock band ingredients are inventively elevated to dazzling new heights. Sudden bursts of distortion punctuate deceptive calm and sheets of shimmering, spectral noise create an atmosphere of unease. Towards the end of the set, on a beautiful performance of Fly, Steve Garrington offers a lithe, dub-influenced bassline that provides the track with firmer foundations. Dynamic contrasts are utilised to maximum effect. Aside from the occasional burst of excoriating guitar storm, there are no real solos as such, so Low’s music continues to be about the various ways in which slow tempi and a range of sound can work together with simple harmony to create something ingenious.

There’s also a sense that this particular set emphasises some of the darker corners of Low’s oeuvre, from the slithering, menacing way the opener Always Up creeps in before suddenly erupting to the stark rendition of Murderer in the encore. Whereas the album version of Always Up is one of Double Negative’s gentler, more ethereal moments, here Mimi Parker’s hushed vocal incantations (“I believe, I believe, I believe”) seem to be presaging something more disconcerting. Next, on a dramatic and absorbing Quorum, Parker is subsumed within waves of sound. Throughout the set, a simple but effective visual element enhances the compelling contrast between delicate beauty and the threat of violence that makes Low’s music so unique. A single blue flame imperceptibly becomes a raging fire during the insistent No Comprende. Later, red backlit liquid might be falling rain or it might be dripping blood.

Mid-set, the tempestuous noise element reaches its peak with an extended period of turbulence and distress during Do You Know How To Waltz? that is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine or Godspeed You! Black Emperor (although not quite as long as the infamous version they performed at Rock The Garden in 2013). Mimi even briefly leaves the stage whilst Alan Sparhawk teases a gathering storm from his guitar and Steve Garrington offers impressively robust and thunderous low bass rumbles. Yet perhaps what most impresses about this performance is the way in which Low create moments of unadorned intimacy within all this – whether it be the aching melody of Always Trying To Work It Out (here entirely undisguised in contrast to the album versions vocoderised wobbliness).

Interestingly, a large portion of the band’s impressive back catalogue is now left untouched – there is nothing from Things We Lost In The Fire, Trust or Secret Name and Drums And Guns and The Great Destroyer are represented only in the darkly euphoric encore. Yet when they do revisit older songs, the choices are judicious, with Lazy (from 1994’s I Could Live In Hope) offering a moment of refined softness after the storm of Waltz. Sparhawk only pauses to address the audience twice, once to apologise for an interruption caused by switching guitar effects. The band create such an extraordinary and singular mood that punctuating it simply seems wrong.

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