Low Life's 'Downer Edn' Is a Mess
Low Life's Downer Edn is a punk album with endless noise and colorless, personality-free vocals.
15 March 2019
Low Life's second album, Downer Edn (pronounced "Edition") seems intended to be a fierce blast of punk aggression, coated in noise and dedicated to a sneering examination of life in their hometown of Sydney, Australia. They have the Sydney-specific lyrics, and they sure do bring the noise. But their fierce blast of aggression leaves a lot to be desired. Some of that can be chalked up to the run of the mill mid-tempo punk music, but the biggest issue Downer Edn has is its colorless, personality-free vocals.
The press materials for this album talk about how the band has expanded from a trio to a quintet, taking special care to point out that guitarist Yuta Matsumura became a member specifically so Mitch Tolman could put down the guitar and focus on his frontman duties. And maybe Tolman is a dynamic performer on the stage, but he is by far the band's weakest link on Downer Edn. Tolman favors a speak-singing style that is difficult to pull off in the first place, even for a charismatic frontman. When he's speaking or shouting, the album's low mixing of the vocals and his general lack of vocal personality render him an afterthought to Low Life's instrumentalists. When he's singing, his monotone style makes it difficult to find any real melody, let alone a hook.
It doesn't help matters that one of the band's two guitarists seems to be on "droning feedback" duty on nearly every song on the album. The omnipresent guitar noise cloaks everything in a muddy blanket of sound, dampening the punk energy of the band and flattening out the dynamics. That is evident right away on Downer Edn's opener, "The Pitts". The song begins with a simple chugging guitar riff and is quickly joined by Tolman's "yeeeaaaaahhh" plus bass, drums, and a second guitar. By the 20-second mark, that second guitar has already descended into feedback-laden noise and is muffling both the vocals and the rest of the band. It's possible to make out the lyrics if one listens very closely, but for the most part "The Pitts" is a mushy mess aside from its snarling gang vocal refrain, "Who aaaaarrreee you?" Even a couple of tempo changes into galloping punk and back don't move the needle much, and the nearly two-minute outro makes the song's four and a half minute runtime feel interminable.
Occasionally a song will show a little spark that manages to push through the feedback. "RBB" has a slightly funky drumbeat that sets it apart, as well as its gang vocal refrain, "You know who the fuck we are / We are Western Sydney / You know who the fuck we are / We are RBB", made me curious enough to look up who the fuck they are. It turns out RBB is the Red and Black Bloc, a hyper-dedicated group of fans of the Western Sydney soccer club. That's the kind of lyrical specificity that makes a song interesting even when the music and vocals are lacking. "Rave Slave" has two distinct guitar parts in the verses and a single thudding riff in the chorus. By leaving the feedback out, Tolman's lyrics are more audible, and the refrain "she's a fucking rave slave" has enough melody to it to make the song memorable. "Gabbertron" opens with a wash of synths and is quickly joined by a fat, thick bass and a staccato, post-punk guitar tone. Lyrically the song makes almost no impact, but the changeup in the band's basic sound is welcome.
But these are blips in the band's otherwise underwhelming sound. A title like "Lad Life" sounds specifically Australian and like the band has something to say, but guitar noise and flat vocals undermine it. "Lust Forevermore" starts as a pseudo new wave track, but that second guitar comes in to blur the sound and Tolman tries to sing and fails utterly. My Bloody Valentine these guys are not.
I wish I could recommend Downer Edn because I like to support artists who make a habit of writing lyrics with specificity and a strong point of view. And that is Low Life's strongest suit. But the delivery of those lyrics is so off-putting that I can't support them. Shoegaze-punk is probably already a thing (though I've never heard of it specifically), but Low Life's version of it doesn't have the musical creativity or the vocal prowess to pull it off. Sydney residents might get something out of this album, but most others will just hear muddy, mediocre punk with super-bland vocals.