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Royal Festival Hall, February 19th 2005

It seems as though the more angular, distorted sounds on some of the songs of Low's most recent album 'The Great Destroyer' have caused a certain amount of bemusement for some long-established fans and critics. "How dare they tamper with the divine blueprint of what a Low song should sound like" seems to be the crux of the argument -as if the parents of "slow-core" shouldn't be allowed to meddle with the genetic structure of the musical child they spawned. The heavy mantle they have created for themselves over all these years of making these beautifully slow, intense elegies has formed too strong a sediment of expectation in the minds of some of those long-acquainted with the band. To a certain extent I can understand these fears. One of the most wonderful aspects of Low has been how they have made such intensely emotive music with so much restraint of gesture, music that is simultaneously stripped to the bone and powerfully melodious.

Judging by tonight's evidence, Low's new material should give us very little cause to worry. If anything, some of the new tracks come off much better live than on record. "Pissing" for example, one of the more grandiose tracks on record in terms of sound effects, is rendered with much more economy live. You expect it to be the kind of track that will grow over an extended number of minutes into a full-on electric storm of screeching guitars. But it stops suddenly and pregnantly, and reassures you that Low have lost none of their restraint.

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are clearly very certain of the merits of their new material as the set-list tonight deviates very little from that of the album, and there are very few complaints from the audience. The audience, incidentally, is apparently one of the largest that Low have ever performed to, the venue being one of London's largest symphony halls, and runs the gamut from bearded oldies to trendy young hipsters -clearly the band's appeal is broad. This itself could be a potential cause for concern. Low are renowned for choosing far more intimate venues where they could spend hours prior to a concert microphoning up their instruments to make the interior of an old church sound like you're inside the sound-box of a guitar. I guess there's little chance of the acoustics being crap in a concert hall, but it still challenges my romantic ideal of Low playing in a decaying old chapel in the middle of nowhere. My daydreams are ultimately rendered idle and pointless anyway, because the music itself succeeds in transporting you directly to such a setting. The beautiful paradox at the heart of Low's sound is that they manage to sound both intimate and vast at the same time. Seeing them play live, you realize how adeptly they can invert your expectations of a song -when you expect to be cocooned, you are seamlessly unfurled into oceanic sound, and vice-versa. From the primal, urgent simplicity of the drums that usher in songs such as "Monkey" to the almost sinisterly unerring vocal harmonies of Alan and Mimi that have an effect verging on audio-hypnosis for me, all are mesmerically in evidence tonight. Towards the end of the set we are finally given more of a chance to compare old and new, and they play "Sunflower", which whilst sounding as glorious as ever, in no way shames the new songs. I'm sorry to disappoint all the naysayers, but Low show little sign of faltering just yet.

-James Ormiston

/apr 1st 2005/