Barlow – Barlow [2015]

If I make music, I want it to sound like Barlow. It’s super noisy shoegaze, but the more extreme sounds are sanded off by the lo-fi recording. And I mean lo-fi – the drums are artfully flat, the guitars swirl around in the red consistently, and the album is mixed in such a way that it’s like nothing wants to be prominent, everything is buried low in the mix.

In addition, Barlow rely on something not commonly associated with shoegaze, the short song. As opposed to some of the epic soundscapes on other records, seven of the ten songs on this self-titled LP are under two minutes in length. This does save on having to write multiple verses (or risking repeating itself too much), but the downside is that the songs don’t give you enough time to really become invested in them. As soon as you’re starting to realise how awesome one of the songs is, it’s suddenly fading out, replaced by another one.

All of the songs are quite good though, showcasing Barlow’s ability to write a quick pop song and make it sound crazy and noisy, as well as showcasing the sweetly soft voice of their lead vocalist (who I can’t actually name, Bandcamp isn’t being very helpful). There’s many sides to their charm, and two songs in particular show this off. ‘Holy Union’, the 90-second third track, is a gentle, drum-free song, with some quick finger-picked guitar and wistful lyrics – “Think of something good when you drive by” – to lull you. It gives way to ‘Only You’, which is heavy where ‘Holy Union’ was quiet, high-tempo drumming pounding away under guitars which roar with static – but it’s kind static, melodic static. This is great fun.

‘Melatonin’ opens with a solid thirty seconds of ambient guitar noise, before the rest of the instruments flood in into another softened noise pop song. ‘Distance’ has some of the nicest drums on the album, but the best part of the song is when they give way and let the guitar shine on its own for a good few bars in the bridge.

At this ‘late’ point in the album (even though barely ten minutes have passed), we get ‘Landscapes’, an amazingly beautiful track. The vocals are pushed to the extremes of lo-fi, sounding like they were recorded in a bathroom, or behind the door of one (which, to be fair, they could have been), but gradually build over time, louder and clearer and prettier. The guitars, meanwhile, exist at a point where I can barely tell if it’s acoustic or electronic, playing a single note at a time while occasional second pulses keep the song alive.

This is what Barlow do – they take the tropes of music and subvert them. You don’t have to write three and a half minute songs; you can instead say what you need in 80 seconds. You don’t have to be uproariously loud; you can cut everything off with a low wall of noise. You don’t have to be traditionally beautiful, or paint things realistically; instead you can build things so that they look the way you want it to, and build them the way you want to, and make something that sounds great and is all your own.

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