Low – St. George’s Church, Brighton – 31st January 2019

Low - St. George's Church, Brighton
Photo by Iain Lauder

This is the final day of January, the day before Imbolc, the pagan celebration that marks the beginning of spring, and the stirrings of new life.

Within the confines of St. George’s Church, the American band Low, made up of Mormon couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, along with bassist Steve Garrington, are attempting to bring to life their recent album Double Negative. Sparhawk, in an interview with Brightonsfinest recently, seemed somewhat taken aback by all the fuss accorded the album, especially here in Brighton, where it was made Album of the Year by Resident. For sure, there is a strong Marmite aspect to Low, and in particular this album. Many people just don’t get the fuss. However, there are plenty who can’t get enough of their atmospheric soundscapes, littered with guitar effects, entrancing vocals, and gently questioning lyrics.

On the album there is a new found electronic ambience that is dark, and at times foreboding, the songs fragmented, a little dystopian. In the flesh, it’s a different proposition. Their modus operandi of guitar, bass, small drum kit, and minimal electronica at their disposal, sees the songs largely stripped-back to their core. As expected, the set begins very slowly, with the ambience of ‘Always Up’, a hush descends on the crowd once it’s realised the band have ‘struck up’. Mimi and Alan sing in ethereal harmony, the song ebbing and flowing, before seguing into ‘Quorum’ and then ‘No Compendre’, a song off their previous album Ones and Sixes. A slow, dark groover, it showcases Alan’s voice, which along with Mimi’s, is really the sturdy backbone of Low, complimenting the music’s largely funereal pace and atmosphere.

They then dig out 2013’s ‘Plastic Cup’, perfectly suited to the band set up, it’s a gentle, acoustic-based song that gradually builds into a minor wall of sound, as does a lot of their material, but without it becoming cataclysmic or overwhelming. This in turn segues into ‘Tempest’ – which on record is mostly heavily distorted – before it pans out into a gentle soundwash, Parker repeatedly singing in that angelic voice of hers: “Even when you’re on”. There’s also a showing of 1996’s ‘Do You Know How To Waltz’, another mournful and slow number. You can hear the veritable pin drop, as the voices gently come in; quivering, yet soulful, the sound elevating into a magnificently controlled wall of sound, dotted with static and interference. Again, patience is rewarded on this focussed, mesmerising, yet slightly unsettling number, where the industrial meets the beatific.

Returning to the newest album, they dub up the tech distortion, electronic heartbeat backing track of ‘Dancing and Blood’, and the closest we get to pop here, on the haunting ‘Always Trying to Work it Out’, the voices are again counterbalanced, the live sound vibing towards an early Neil Young. While ‘Poor Sucker’ sees the heavily doctored studio version transformed into a fluid, if slowed down, Midlake/Fleetwood Mac groove.

For the most part, this is transfixing stuff, aided by the brilliant setting, a backdrop of a suspended Jesus overhanging a LED triptych that silhouettes the band; and it’s snowing heavily outside. Although at times, the minimalist structures of the songs can be underwhelming, the repetition of voices, circular guitar, and sparse drums and bass, adding little to the haunting mood. However, Low are a remarkable band, a trio who have weathered the vagaries of musical fashion, in carving out a sizeable cult reputation. They are modest to a fault, shying away from really breaking out into unexpected terrains, despite the odd guitar histrionics, and the subtly flowing sound that veers from the barely perceptible, to epic proportions, with only a few natural breaks between numbers. It’s only before the encore that Sparhawk speaks extensively, giving the packed church his warmest thanks on this bitterly cold, yet memorable evening. “We will pay you back”, he says, before the band embark on the surface glow of the pastoral rock rhythms of ‘Sunflower’.

Although underwhelming at times, but with the audience in the palms of their hands throughout, Low are quiet, unassuming people by nature, but ones who are mostly able to imbue their essentially simple songs into works of atmospheric ‘post-rock’, that sit perfectly within the confines of this setting. The first day of spring is literally around the corner and, as ever, Low are flowering into something approaching life affirming.

Jeff Hemmings

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