I wanted to like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory. All of its sound reference points I saw tossed about (e.g., Slint, Drive Like Jehu, all sorts of ‘90s Touch & Go Records bands) really piqued my interest — what was the last band of similar popularity to warrant such accolades? Yeah, I can’t remember either. Still, to my ears, if you’re going to revive a sound from the 90s, better to sound like something Touch & Go put out than grunge.
As soon as I heard “No Future/No Past,” however, my first instinct was to listen to Lowercase’s “Floodlit” instead. Both songs have very similar “Good Morning, Captain”-derived progressions — that is, both songs slowly build tension, eventually releasing it all with explosive aplomb. The thing is, “No Future/No Past” sounds nigh-identical to “Floodlit” with the same tom-stomp drum thud, edgy bassline, and guitars meandering overhead; yet, in Cloud Nothings’ hands, this formula is based around one single idea that feels like an adolescent tantrum, while Lowercase’s take has more guitar and lyrical variation, building a haunting and genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Go ahead, compare ‘em.
Lowercase frontman Imaad Wasif’s voice, especially at its most strained, is spine chilling. On “Floodlit,” the “Good Morning, Captain” “I miss you” moment is only a little different lyrically (“I believe in you”), yet after the song’s foreboding buildup, it feels justified. In hindsight, the Slint-derived formula seems quite contrived, and I’m not surprised at its relative scarcity in contemporary indie rock (there were enough bands doing it in the 90s to turn it into cliché), but every so often a song employs it in such an effective (or affective, if you’re into that) manner that I find it tough to deny. “Floodlit” is one of those songs, and it’s not even the best one on Lowercase’s aptly titled swansong, The Going Away Present.
Back to Wasif’s voice and why my immediate reaction to Cloud Nothings was to listen to Lowercase instead: on “You’re a King,” the closing track of Lowercase’s second album Kill the Lights, Wasif takes the “repeat one lyric and put more and more emphasis on it each time” formula to its extreme, sounding psychotic and immensely pained by the climax of the death-dirge’s brutal 12-minute duration. To that extent, I remain further nonplussed with Cloud Nothings’ pale imitation. Well, maybe that’s not fair — the difference between releasing albums on Punk in My Vitamins (a label operated by Vern Rumsey of Unwound) and Carpark pretty much assumes different standards for an audience, I just feel that I might have responded better to Cloud Nothings if I’d never heard the bands Dylan Baldi and co. were trying to channel. More people have probably watched the “No Future/No Past” video than have ever listened to Lowercase, so I realize this may come off as snobbish, but in the case of “Floodlit” the similarities are just too much for me to not call it out. Regardless, The Going Away Present is Lowercase’s masterpiece, a sorely overlooked gem that combines the best of 90s post-rock and brooding slowcore (think somewhere between Unwound and Codeine). I hope some of the people who may have been introduced to this sound via Cloud Nothings will eventually come to it.