The amount of Rock records has been decreasing at a surprisingly steep pace in the past 10 years, as many bands have begun to embrace untechnical rhythms, hazy vocals, and instruments laced in reverb. The resultant change birthed several great bands (Japandroids, Cymbals Eat Guitars) and hundreds of horrible ones (practically all the rest). From somewhere in the middle of those camps came Cloud Nothings’ debut album last year.
Dylan Baldi, a student at Case Western Reserve University, began Cloud Nothings as a solo project to give himself something to do between classes. The music that came out of this idle time felt expectantly escapist and airy, and many critics, including myself, pegged Cloud Nothings as “Just Another Guitar Band”. A “guitar band” is basically a band that plays guitars, just like a Rock band, but which makes music that is too shiftless and flighty to be properly Rock. It’s music that’s destined to soundtrack commercials for Toyota Camrys, for a generation that has become increasingly accustomed to that sort of thing.
So you might understand the reaction I had when I first heard “No Future, No Past”, the lead single off of “Attack On Memory”. I was floored. The steady, proficient drumming, Baldi yelping that lyrical refrain with actual verve and grit, the fact that I could actually hear each instrument, with each note given it’s own ample sonic space – was I listening to the same band? “No Future, No Past” sounds like Nirvana covering Radiohead from somewhere in the flat Ohio countryside, wind whipping Baldi’s unbuttoned flannel shirt into a billowing cape as he screams his heart out about love gone sour. There’s no marshmallow fluff hooks on “Attack on Memory”. This is like when Ministry dropped their spangled synthpop act and released the brutalist “The Land of Rape and Honey”. This is a Rock record with a capital R, and one of the first great albums of a year destined to be full of them.
Although the stylistic shift from lo-fi powerpop to turbulent punk rock was clearly of the band’s own design, it’s impossible not to recognize recording engineer Steve Albini’s fingerprints on the sound of this record. The Big Black/Shellac frontman and “In Utero” producer might have been playing Scrabble on Facebook while the album was being recorded, as Baldi suggests in interviews, but the acoustics in his warm studio space, and his collection of vintage tube-amps, heighten the album by bringing Cloud Nothings down to Earth. Guitars growl and cuss, drums make all the sounds that your morning bowl of Rice Crispies did, and where vocals on previous releases sounded like they could have been sung into Baldi’s Macbook, they now feel sharp and weighty. “Our Plans” in particular, with it’s military-grade drumrolls and bass that bounces like it was trapped into a pinball machine, benefits from the sonic upgrade. The song’s chorus “No one knows our plans for us/We won’t last long” is brought into melancholy clarity, and when those jagged guitar leads rise up out from behind Baldi to steal the show with a teeth-baring solo of ferocious feedback, one wonders why the band didn’t just start out sounding so alive in the first place.
“Attack on Memory” is, according to Baldi, an “attack on the memory of what people thought the band was”. But the risks taken on this record go beyond the obvious changes from saccharine, C86-flecked guitar-bandery to a more aggressive, emo-influenced sound. This is the first of Baldi’s records to entirely focus around one concept, that being the end of a long, turgid relationship. Like the previously mentioned Ministry record, “Attack On Memory” is an exercise in brutalism, except of the lyrical variety rather than instrumental.
Thus, when Baldi sings of his heartbreak, he does so with all the fat trimmed off, vamping on the same three or four lines over and over again. “I miss you ‘cuz I’m not damaged/I need someone I can hurt” Baldi states matter-of-factly for the last minute of “Cut You”, all obliqueness pushed aside until the words ring as clear as the sound quality. “I need time to start moving/I need time to stay useless” he explains on “Stay Useless”, the album’s strongest hook and proof that Cloud Nothings isn’t aiming for Antlers-like levels of emotional trauma on “Attack on Memory”. The chorus of “Fall In” is the title shouted over and over again, and because it is mixed at such a higher level than the verses, they might as well be the song’s only lyrics. It’s a startlingly effective method of peeking inside a broken man’s psyche: I have found myself humming “Stay Useless” at work, the gym, and in the shower, the lyrics rattling around in my head much like the memories of a relationship gone awry rattle around a post-breakupee’s.
Then there’s the band itself. In the space of a year, Cloud Nothings has morphed from a bedroom solo project to a full-fledged group, with Baldi culling players from members of his touring act. The result are songs that feel composed rather than merely performed, Baldi’s unstudied drum-and-bass-playing replaced by clean, efficient downbeats and rolling basslines. “Wasted Days”, the album’s finest track, utilizes the new lineup to full, awe-inspiring effect. Beginning with showers of guitar sparks that emulate the sound oft the Foo Fighters being played through an alarm clock radio, the band tears through the first three minutes of “Wasted Days” like they have something to prove, with those drums getting attacked like Baldi has taped a picture of his girlfriend cavorting with Adolf Hitler on each drumhead. The tune is ferocious; Baldi sounds suicidal, as if he’s about to drive his car off the biggest cliff he can find, right into Lake Michigan, while taking his band with him.
Then, at 3:02, everything goes underwater. The only member that has managed to keep his head dry is Baldi, who rides a serrated surf-rock riff as his bandmates heads start to bob above the ocean surface. Finally, at 3:26, they begins to swim. The next five minutes are less Foo Fighters and more Fucked Up’s “Baiting the Public”, Baldi furiously downstroking on his guitar, waves of feedback propelling the song to a fiery climax, as if merely by playing as fast and frantically as they possibly can, upping the tempo with each passing measure, they can help Baldi forget. Those are the single most thrilling five minutes in music so far this year.
“Attack on Memory” forgoes the “sophomore slump” and provides a valid argument for Cloud Nothings as purveyors of a rare brand of Rock music that exists beyond trends. Now that they’re supposedly settled on this new sound, I think it’s about time for a name change.The name Cloud Nothings is saccharine, recalling the sort of sugar-coated, supplicating pop music that this band doesn’t make anymore. Their new name should reflect who they are now: a group of fine young gentlemen playing shitkicking, in-your-face power chords with all the panache of your favorite bands in high school. After a couple years spent contentedly quiet, it’s about time that Cloud Nothings made some noise.