Low (photo: Patric Carver)
Japanese instrumental post-rock band Mono played a lusciously aggressive set at the Fillmore last Tuesday. More of an experience than a concert, Mono is theater with instruments. Their sound is more story that most bands that include lyrics in their work – pressing, provocative, and pummeling. I don’t know if I’d enjoy their brand of madness in any other format than live performance, because the joy factor seemed to be in the entire stage show, which was something to see. I am one of those people that enjoys going to the symphony, though I never play classical records at home. I got the same feeling while watching Mono. I loved being there, but I wouldn’t be taking the music home.
It was impressive that they even held a candle to openers Low, who played a set that was positively life-affecting.
“All right, let’s do this. Ready?” sighed Alan Sparhawk as Low took the stage. Given his meek demeanor, it wouldn’t have been possible for newcomers to Low’s live performance to know that they most decidedly were not ready. There’s no way to be ready for Low.
Low is not an easy band to describe. A three-piece that appears to have been robbed of key elements from their drum kit, they look like they are going to be too artsy to be any good. They look minimalist. When I hear the word minimalist associated with rock music, I often cringe — it’s usually a synonym for compromise. When bands can’t find the right fills for their holes, they slap on this banner to become a cultural statement of some kind and therefore worthy of respect.
Low is no such parlor trick. Their minimalism comes with a hearty dose of earnest intention born from the hard-packed Midwestern soil from which they arose. Like the eerily familiar oddity of a Coen Brothers production, this trio swirls in on the dust of Duluth and the peculiarity of over-examined commonalities. Likewise, I can’t really position them into the slowcore set, either. I reject the term for them because there’s an unspoken understanding that members of that genre generally produce willful effort to impact the stage with boredom, depression, or confusion — if not a combination of all three. You feel too good, too alive after a Low show for that to be the case.
Their genius lies mostly in the fact that their sound seems to melt without any heat. Low is all about entertainment and artistry; their coolness is electrifying. If their sound could be transferred to physical matter, the atoms of their audible offerings would somehow break from formation and detach until liquefied, all with no rise in temperature. It’s miraculous. That miracle wept an immaculate aural river over the Fillmore’s stage that a packed house gratefully bobbed in for the band’s entire set. At points, there was so much beauty lofting through the air, that my own eyes joined this alchemy and produced more substance for the splash in which we found ourselves engulfed.
It’s a strange thing, too, crying because I was so moved at this Low engagement. The trio wrings out such ambrosial sound while washing the crowd banal lyrics like “Now they make you piss into a plastic cup” that it’s almost absurd. Pissing in a cup isn’t just mundane in the human existence. It’s a signifier of a low point. Yet, by describing the cup’s ability to maintain while we (myself, the audience, all humans in existence) wither and expire, Low pushes the content into something that’s profound without being pretentious. I mean, a song with the word “piss” in it was making me misty from its tenderness, from its charming bloom. Is that possible?
Well, yes. Yes, it was.
The nature of Low’s lyrics is an adaption of the everyday into the sublime. It makes for a rampant amount of ridiculous charm and pull. They push borders of the poetic and the postmodern dangerously close, creating imagery that is both relatable and consciousness-stretching.
The most demanding aspect of Low’s performance, though, was the challenge to the audience to keep up their relationship with Earth’s gravitational pull while swaddled in their atmosphere-bending harmonies. During “On My Own,” Sparkhawk and drummer Mimi Parker haunted the room with these ghostly vocals that seemed to saturate the shadows in the room. It was breathtaking.
The absolute highlight of the evening, though, was their final song, “Monkey.” Starting off chillingly subdued, the song trickled together as if it was sneaking up on itself. Those heart-stopping harmonies were breathed out as if the band was one very gentle organism. Then, with slicing guitar and damning bass, the song was violently punctuated — bleeding out this feeling of longing, loss, and manic desperation. Wounded and gasping, the spirit of the song sunk out as subtly as it entered, altered but not eradicated by that sonic interruption. It was one of the loveliest pieces of live music I’ve heard.
There’s a supernatural element to Low’s music that ensnares the listener by capturing both the heart and the head. They may not be the loudest band around, but they’ve got one of the biggest sounds.