The last time I saw Low in concert was way back in 2007, at one of my favourite venues in the world, the Radiokulturhaus in Vienna. They’ve toured Europe regularly since then, but have never been back to Vienna (although they’re heading that way in July), or anywhere else close enough for me to see them, for that matter. It was a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to see them pop up in Geneva in February as part of the Antigel festival, one of the undoubted highlights of Geneva’s cultural calendar. All credit to the group for including Geneva in their busy touring schedule, especially since they had been 2000 kilometres away in Stockholm the night before, a challenging routing at the best of times.
Low have switched bassists since 2007, although you wouldn’t know it from the current incumbent’s unobtrusive presence at stage left. The group’s sound is still built around Alan Sparhawk’s extraordinary guitar work, Mimi Parker’s lighter-than-air percussion and the pair’s spectral vocals, ascending miraculously from the stage in clouds of exquisite harmony. The results are astonishing; this is some of the most inexorable music I’ve ever heard, its dense fragility daring the listener not to pay attention lest he miss some crushingly emotional moment, some blinding flash of insight.
As is by now fairly well known, Low’s most recent album Double Negative represents something of a departure for the group. Previous outings like Drums and Guns and Ones and Sixes had seen the band warp their trademark sound with icy drones and skeletal electronic pulses, but this album goes much further in its single-minded deconstruction of the Low myth. Sparhawk’s and Parker’s damaged voices cling desperately to vertiginous waves of static as if on the verge of some terrible accident, while Sparhawk’s guitar plunges deep into worlds of formless, distorted texture. It’s a bold, sombre and, not least, timely piece of work.
Wisely, Low choose not to attempt to recreate the looming shadows of Double Negative tonight, even though almost half the setlist is given over to it. Instead, the concert makes explicit the thread running through all of Low’s work: a sense of profound disquiet, love and faith put at risk, beauty undermined by fear and pain. Wrenching raw notes from his guitar in fevered bursts of activity, Sparhawk navigates the treacherous zones of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” as movingly as he traces the hymnal echoes of “Nothing But Heart”. Meanwhile, Parker’s understated stickwork and radiant vocals add to the impression that there is something ineffable, almost holy, present in Low’s music.
For all that, Low’s art remains firmly grounded in the present, its conversational intimacy perfectly suited to the medium of live performance. Resplendent in a cosy patterned sweater, Sparhawk trades the minimum of banter with the audience, gamely enquiring what else was coming up at the festival (answer: not much, it was almost over) and expressing regret (more than I did, I have to say) at having missed Yo La Tengo’s concert the night before. But when the music speaks with such quiet, unassuming eloquence as this music does, there’s really nothing more to be said.