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Drop Nineteens return after three decades with their most versatile set on Hard Light

"Hard Light"

Release date: 03 November 2023
Drop Nineteens Hard Light cover
31 October 2023, 09:00 Written by John Amen

Emerging in the early 1990s as part of shoegaze’s second wave, Drop Nineteens mined My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything and Loveless, the moody aesthetics of The Cure and Joy Division, and noisescapes courtesy of Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth.

The band stands, perhaps, as a link between the subgenre’s foundational gestalts and later eclecticisms, including Deafheaven’s blackgaze (consider “Reberrymemberer” from Delaware) and the sublime palette of South Korean Parannoul.

Soon after releasing Delaware in 1992 and National Coma in 1993, the band members went their own ways. 30 years later, Greg Ackell, Steve Zimmerman, Pete Koeplin, Motohiro Yasue, and Paula Kelley have reunited to release Hard Light. Fortunately for them, the shoegaze playbook has aged exceptionally well, prompting various hybridizations over the decades, though even its now-retro elements have remained surprisingly modish, albeit usually coupled with higher production values, as exemplified by Terraplana’s olhar pra trás and Sexores’ Mar del Sur, both released this year.

With Hard Light, Drop Nineteens seem to have emancipated themselves from the artistic and commercial parameters they likely felt corralled by in the 1990s. Replete with the prerequisite blankets of fuzz, the set is also, in places, notably buoyant. Additionally, with several tracks, the band is clearly more pop-aspirant; i.e., “Scapa Flow”, built around roiling guitars that frame an effervescent melody, the band offering one of the hookiest songs in their oeuvre. “Tarantula” similarly oozes with pop elan, though the overall sound is murkier.

“Another One Another” features Ackell’s punk-informed vocal repeatedly splashed by breakers of distortion. The band have refined and brought into the limelight an affinity for striking juxtapositions, moving seamlessly between heroin lulls and amphetamine frissons, dive-bar dinge and ethereal idealism.

On “The Price Was High”, Kelley’s bubblegum-ish vocal contrasts with Yasue’s crunchy guitar runs and a series of Dadaistic images and declarations (“Names escaped run amok with bottle caps for eyes”, “I can’t shake your body so I shake mine instead”, “The nights from days ferried east and ended with no one getting wise”). The track illustrates Drop Nineteens’ honed attunement to working with opposites, mingling clean and serrated sounds, interweaving feral engagement and icy detachment.

The band tills fresh ground on “Lookout”, experimenting with folk templates. “When the trees get weird I just wanna be here,” Ackell proclaims, sounding like a late-night stoner, his voice draped across a strummed acoustic and Koeplin’s light percussion. A scintillant cover of The Clientele’s “Policeman Getting Lost” underscores the band’s ability to navigate a minimal setting and Kelley’s gift for embodying a mercurial timbre. The band is more risk-acceptive than ever, as comfortable with stripped-down takes as big-club productions.

The album closes with the seven-plus-minute “T”. Undergirded by a supple bass line courtesy of Zimmerman, Ackell and Kelley alternate vocals, forging a fertile dialog. Their voices are eventually blended as if to consummately symbolize the integrations that have occurred throughout the sequence. The final 2 minutes of the track feature a stream of guitar-generated distortion dotted with melodic hints that quickly rise and pass. It’s a glorious coda to an impressive return, a reemergence that shows the band at their most versatile, free to be themselves.

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