SST-style punk? Emo? Hardcore? Plain old rock ‘n’ roll? Over their varied, critically-acclaimed back catalog, Cloud Nothings really could have claimed to be any, all, or none of these things.
On their new record, Last Building Burning, they’ve added a vicious experimental edge to an already fiercely potent sonic brew, bringing back some of the Sturm und Drang they worked so hard to do without on their previous record.
After a couple of buzzing, grunged-out records, last year saw the release of Life Without Sound, which smoothed out some of the sharper edges, and mellowed some of the rawer elements of their sound. It was in no way a retreat, or a sign of ‘commercial inclinations’ - it was, if anything, a double-down on what makes them such a great band. The hooks were clearer, the lyrics less obtuse. Primary songwriter, lyricist and general leader Dylan Baldi had never, up until that point, left so much of himself open to scrutiny, and it strengthened the emotional pull of the material.
When they first emerged, like-minded contemporaries were few and far between, but now, as the big fish in the pond they helped create, it seems like it’s about time that Baldi & Co. stood head and shoulders above the competition, because in many ways they have been superseded (in terms of press mileage and buzz) by Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest.
Toledo's blend of punk, indie and rock ‘n’ roll has made the name of his project almost ubiquitous in conversations about the kind of cerebral aggression that Cloud Nothings peddle. However, Last Building Burning is an undeniably serious snatch at the crown.
In the press kit for the album, Baldi explains; “I wrote this [record] because I felt there weren’t too many rock bands doing what we are right now. A lot of other bands sound great but it’s missing a heaviness I like.” He also speaks of attempting to “capture the energy of the moment”.
He’s successful in achieving both of these stated aims: the album is grittier, dirtier and heavier than their last record, and possibly more than the record before that (the superb Here and Nowhere Else). It’s also completely, absolutely alive with energy, due in no small part to the blistering production from metal legend Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Boris, Earth, Myrkur).
Opening with the breakneck frenetic punk of “On An Edge” really sets out the mission statement for the rest of the record. The drumming is powerful but supple and the guitars grind and groove with livid intensity... but, despite all of the outward hardcore signifiers (especially Baldi’s throat-shredding barks), the track actually recalls (surprisingly) Queens Of The Stone Age at their most frenzied (“Sick Sick Sick”, “A Song for the Dead”).
The ‘regular’ Cloud Nothings sound returns on the yearning, emotional “Leave Him Now”. It’s a Dinosaur Jr.-esque fuzz-ballad – in fact, the track could have easily fit on either Bug or You’re Living All Over Me. They then segue into the feverish, barrelling indie-rock chug of “In Shame”. Baldi’s hurt refrain of “They won’t remember my name” is a real wounder. You really feel it.
“Offer an End” and “The End of the World” both place the emphasis on dynamics. There’s lots of room in the tracks, but also moments of intensity. There are moments where each track becomes subtly calm, before they explode again with the signature incendiary propulsive attack Cloud Nothings do so well.
“So Right So Clean” threatens to drift into doom metal territory with its ominous, chiming intro, before it drops down into a downbeat, classic emo pocket, with Baldi howling over crashing cymbals and slashing minor chords.
The construction of the sounds on “Another Way of Life” offer insight into a potential future direction for Cloud Nothings - it's still fevered and white-hot but has an irresistible a chorus as Baldi’s ever written. In interviews and on Bandcamp, Baldi touted the marriage of their earlier and more recent sounds as being the guiding ideology behind Last Building Burning, and this is no more apparent than on this track.
The review wouldn’t be complete without a look at the eleven-minute centrepiece “Dissolution”, which goes down so many rabbit-holes that you’re left completely disoriented and bewildered by the end of it. It’s a real journey, with innumerable twists and turns across its epic length.
Despite the huge run-time, “Dissolution” never overstays its welcome – in fact, it only grows and expands further in your head. There’re winding, zig-zagging melody lines and riffs, without it ever meandering. It may very well be the most accomplished thing Baldi has ever written.
At about three minutes in, when the drums, vocals and bass drop out, and you’re left with the Dunn-aided wall of white-noise feedback buzzing and hissing, you begin to realise just how much of an experiment you’ve been taken on across the record. Then when the improvisatorial, rain-dance drum battery kicks in, joining the feedback in rapturous union, you hear something special happen.
Finally, at somewhere after the seven-minute mark, when the sheets of noise gradually build into a bustling, roaring crescendo of joyous pandemonium, you realise something else: Sure, “Dissolution” sounds like Cloud Nothings. But there’s some mercurial, unnameable (but tangible) sense of confidence on display here that they haven’t really explored in any serious manner before. This is power without grandstanding; it’s conviction in the craft without any hint of arrogance or look-at-me braggadocio. It’s Baldi flexing his creative muscles to their fullest potential, and pulling it off.
Last Building Burning is, truly, as inspiring, energizing and life-affirming as punk is likely to get in 2018. These are universal themes, howled and thrashed out by punk’s unsung Everyman. Baldi and his conspirators have created something fantastic here – easily matching the scope and ambition of artists across the musical spectrum. They always seemed to be on the cusp of greatness, and Last Building Burning is their first step over that threshold.