Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Heaven's above


The Bristol I'm used to is a genteel place: smart, well-heeled, respectable, solidly middle class. So this is an eye-opening education: a wander through Lawrence Hill, past boarded-up shops, massage parlours and the sort of pubs where a cocktail involves a pickled onion or a pork scratching floating in your pint. Hard to believe that this amble through the most deprived electoral ward in the south-west of England (so Wikipedia tells me) will culminate in us watching a bunch of Mormons performing in a church.

Unlike St John the Baptist Church in Coventry, though, the Trinity is deconsecrated, now a community centre. The spectacular exterior brings back fond memories of fantastic Cardiff venue the Point, while the low-ceilinged interior gives an indication of how that place might have looked post-soundproofing, had that nimby-and-council-enforced action not resulted in bankruptcy. Thumbs up for the availability of a range of Bath Ales behind the bar, too.

Easing us in on a warm evening are Sleepingdog, a collaboration between Belgian vocalist Chantal Acda and Adam Wiltzie of US soundscapists Stars Of The Lid who are showcasing somnambulent balladry from third album Our Heads In The Clouds And Our Hearts In The Fields. Wiltzie may be the "name", but it's Acda who undeniably steals the show, her voice emotive and radiant amidst the quiet afforded to the duo by a pleasingly respectful Friday night crowd.

In fairness, though, her American accomplice's contribution - primarily drones, as you'd expect - gives that voice soothing, spaced-out context. The spell is only broken by a passage of rather jarring acoustic strumming mid-set - best leave that to the folkies.

Low, meanwhile, are simply unsurpassable when it comes to interweaving dark and light, beauty and the beast, a delicious lightness of touch and a crushing heaviness of heart, and they're here to give a masterclass. "Greetings from the country where we celebrate in the street when we assassinate someone", mumbles Alan Sparhawk before 'Murderer', the penultimate song of the main set. 'Laser Beam' is next, the Mimi Parker-sung track from 2001's Things We Lost In The Fire which paints its impossible beauty across a canvas of perfect pindrop silence.

They don't leave it there, though. 'That's How You Sing Amazing Grace' kicks off the encore with weighty, earthbound verses and a chorus that strives to float off heavenward, only to be juxtaposed with (and undercut by) the grim reflections of 'Violent Past'. A commentary on their country's past (and indeed present), perhaps?

In the circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that Sparhawk and Parker ignore the shouts - possibly from Spillers Records co-owner Grace, I can't quite tell - for 'Toto' by Africa (which they covered to superb effect for the A.V. Club), but there's still plenty to bring smiles to faces. Mine is positively beaming at the airing of a host of familiar favourites, the likes of 'California', 'Last Snowstorm Of The Year' and 'Silver Rider'.

But that's not to suggest that Low are merely content to trade on former glories - not a bit of it. Since that November night in Coventry, C'mon has been released and tonight 'Witches', 'Especially You', '$20' (in their best tradition of being simultaneously uplifting and chilling) and set opener 'Nothing But Heart' (actually nothing but spinetingling, slow-burning crescendo) all provide ample evidence for anyone wanting to put forward a case for their ninth record ranking right up among their finest.

Perhaps the reason the new material sounds so good is that it was recorded at Sparhawk's own studio Sacred Heart Music Center, which also just happens to be a deconsecrated church. The songs are at home here; they've got the space to breathe and grow and resonate. I never thought I'd become a regular churchgoer, but Low clearly have other ideas.


skif said...

Excellent review. I was half tempted to to go up to Lancaster recently to see them. Low. Playing in a library. Much as they fit churches perfectly, to have a Busman's holiday with Low playing in the middle of it would have been amazing. Sadly, but also thankfully wallet-wise, I saw sense.

Ben said...

Cheers Skif - only took 15 months! I hadn't heard about the library gig - sounds potentially brilliant. While I haven't got my Shellac ATP ticket yet, I'm hoping that the Albini connection might mean the Mangum event isn't the only one they play this year...