[sic] Magazine

Lower Dens – Nootropics

The last few months I’ve found it harder and harder to bring myself to write about music. (I couldn’t bear to write another review including the phrase ‘washes of synth’.) It’s not that I haven’t heard much good music; far from it – 2012 has been a pretty awesome year, with Grizzly Bear ‘s Shields and Lower DensNootropics on repeat play in recent months. It’s just a question of finding something worthwhile to say when there’s so much music writing out there. Adding yet another review of Shields to the pile seems like pissing in the wind. So, I figured I’d have a go at writing about Nootropics because it’s less well known – and because it’s affected me in a way that very little recent music has.

But let’s rewind a little. I discovered Lower Dens’ debut Twin Hand Movement thanks to an episode of Pitchfork TV’s 5-10-15-20 featuring Sharon Van Etten , who waxed rhapsodic about the way in which Jana Hunter had made the transition from solo artist to fronting her own band. Twin Hand Movement sounds like the work of a band, loosely weaving warmly overdriven guitars and a lackadaisical rhythm section into an inviting tapestry, across which Hunter lays her easily flowing lyrics. It reminds me of Pavement ‘s Wowee Zowee in a weird way. Go seek it out.

Naturally I was intrigued to hear its follow up Nootropics , which is an entirely different beast. If Twin Hand Movement is the sound of a band jamming in a room, then Nootropics sounds like it could only be the work of the same band if they’d been teleported into the future – but the future as perceived by Berlin-era Bowie or Kraftwerk . Gone are the warmly overdriven guitars; instead we have guitars swimming with seasick modulation. The loose, live-sounding drums are replaced by tight motorik patterns played on live kit and drum machine. Geoff Graham ‘s bass is to the fore, cutting through ominously where it once felt like a balm.

‘Alphabet Song’ immediately establishes the tone of the record. The opening phrase, “ Man walking forward forever “, should feel triumphant – but instead it sounds utterly hopeless, as though man will continue making the same mistakes until the end of time, our lot ever bleaker. The momentum of technological progress is carrying us inexorably forward towards a time when we’re (even more) dangerously divorced from our own humanity. Indeed, recent interviews with the band feature the word ‘transhumanism’ quite a lot, which is basically an intellectual movement that advocates technological development as an aid to human perfectibility. Sound exciting? Or sinister?

But let’s not get too caught up in the concept – there’s some stunning music here regardless of the ideas behind it. Singles ‘Brains’ and ‘Propagation’ are the most immediately accessible tracks – the former distinguished by its motorik drums and pile-up of voices; the latter by its eerie, shimmering guitar patterns. ‘Nova Anthem’ takes minimal ingredients – drum machine, synth, Jana’s vocal – and builds them into a heartbreaking torch song. Closer ‘In The End Is The Beginning’ sounds like Can robbed of all groove and running on empty. It lopes and unspools across 12 minutes and feels like the human race giving up on their previous hopes for the future and trying to find a new way.

Although various individual tracks stand out on subsequent listens, it’s the massed whole that proves devastating. At this stage in the year I think I can be so bold as to stake Nootropics’ claim for album of the year. Its eerie magnetism is irresistible.

Find out more