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Ones And Sixes Glen Mcleod , September 10th, 2015 13:24

The title of Low's new album Ones And Sixes seems like a statement of intent - instead of existing in the middle ground, they would rather take risks, even if the results may divide opinion. Over the band's twenty plus years - husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, along with more recent recruit Steve Garrington, have constantly found ways to push their sound into different shapes. Initially they set themselves some pretty narrow parameters: drums, guitars, vocals - tempos slowed down to a sub-funeral march and songs stripped down to their bare bones. It was the polar opposite to the deluge of speed and noise of the early 90s - a drive through a barren terrain while the rest of the traffic was on the scenic coastal road. This helped them gain a loyal fan base, but rather than sticking to a proven formula they have elected to push their sound in different directions with each new release. But with Low's last two albums - The Invisible Way and C'Mon it seemed they had come to a creative cul-de-sac. The albums heralded a fuller, warmer sound – and although the songs were unmistakably Low, they sounded safe and lacked a certain curiosity. The band seemed headed for a future of threes and fours.

But from 'Gentle', the icy opening track on this latest effort, it's clear that a certain restlessness has returned. The heartbeat thump of drum machine underpins treated piano, acoustic strum, digital glitch and bass. It feels claustrophobic - like the air has been sucked out of the room, and Sparhawk and Parker's swirling vocals are the only trace of humanity remaining. It begins an album where Low use sonic experimentation as a tool to transform their songs – and not for the first time. After 2005's The Great Destroyer - arguably their most straightforward rock record, they returned with Drums And Guns - which used samples and loops to etch out brittle compositions, the inverse of previous bombast. It seems that when Low allow themselves to get lost in the studio they tap into their songwriting craft on a more subconscious level – and Ones And Sixes finds them producing some of their best work in years.

'Non Comprende' is an early highlight - Sparhawk addresses the consequences of miscommunication with a half tempo swagger that showcases the band at their echo laden best. 'Into You' explores the spiritual connection of two people who are so in sync it seems like they are inhabiting one brain. All the while pulses hum in the background like synapses firing – an aural manifestation of this invisible bond. 'Religion' is a recurring theme throughout the album - Innocents issues the first testament type warning: "All you innocents make a run for it. All the innocents, might be done for it", while album closer DJ  quips: "You want religion, you want assurance. The resurrection, some kind of purpose. It's not what you say, it's what you take back. I ain't your DJ, you've gotta shake that". Lyrics seem deliberately playful and open to interpretation; a blurring of the line between fiction and reality.

Ones And Sixes is an album brimming with ideas, but with such a varied batch of songs, some work better than others. But for the moments that feel a little throwaway, we get the sun soaked fuzz of 'No End', the tangible sense of loss and longing distilled in 'Lies' and the majesty of 'Landslide'. Its prolonged ending with Parker's unwavering drums and honeyed vocals the calm eye of the storm whilst Sparhawk's guitar tornadoes and ricochets around, could perhaps be a representation of the band itself. Whatever the formula that has seen them constantly mutating their sound whilst keeping true to their ideals, it is obviously working. Let's hope it continues.