Album Review of Life Without Sound by Cloud Nothings.
Release Date: Jan 27, 2017
Record label: Carpark Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Noise Pop, Noise-Rock
Cleveland sits tucked against the southern shore of Lake Erie, a blip on the tragic map of the Midwestern American rust belt. But it’s been years since that industrial decline, and what’s left is perhaps a lingering feeling of displacement and isolation that typifies any region on the rebound — a period of reestablishment and re-realization of what exactly it is and what it means. It was even dubbed “the Comeback City.” Cloud Nothings, the city’s cryptic, throttling rock group, can be couched squarely in this narrative, if only for arbitrary contextual purposes.
If there’s a polyamorous rock band working, it’s Cloud Nothings. The band flirt with emo navel-gazing, math-rock exactitude, and punk militancy. But, their physiognomy is patriotically indie rock; an avid conviction in the expressive power of guitars, and the enduring constant in their ever-evolving philosophical engagements. Absconding the lo-fi fuzz of his formative solo stuff; from 2012’s Attack on Memory onwards, an observable trajectory containing these engagements has materialised.
If the title of Cloud Nothings’ fourth studio album suggested the Cleveland indie rockers were dialling down the volume, then band linchpin Dylan Baldi was keen to go along with that: “This record is like my version of new age music,” he claimed in October. Turns out he was talking what is known in the trade as complete bilge. Because with its scuzzy feedback and crashing drums, Life Without Sound would be terrible in a salt-infusion aromatherapy steam bath.
Cloud Nothings have never done things conventionally. Here And Nowhere Else was a great example of this a few years ago, where it felt like they were one step ahead of their peers on the indie rock scene. A faster, tighter and more frenetic Japandroids -- the best description I could give to someone after listening to that album. Life Without Sound, however, finds the band with a more expansive sound that's louder, more balanced, even faster and edgier than before.
You could probably be forgiven for thinking you had Cloud Nothings’ number by now. Over the course of their first three full-lengths, the Cleveland trio adhered to a few basic principles; breakneck pace, chaotic instrumental landscapes and consistently noisy guitars. That isn’t to say they hadn’t been progressing musically; on their outstanding 2014 LP, Here and Nowhere Else, they began to flirt with the idea of heading into more experimental territory, particularly on the epic “Pattern Walks” and the psych-tinged “Giving Into Seeing”.
After the ragged angst of their last two albums, it's not surprising that Cloud Nothings opt for a lighter approach on Life Without Sound -- if only to give Dylan Baldi's vocal cords a much-needed break. On their fifth album, Baldi and company sand off some of the rough edges that defined Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else, and more often than not, it adds nuance to the tug of war between defiance and acceptance that drives their music. However, smoother sounds don't always mean a smoother outlook, and Life Without Sound finds Baldi soundtracking his quarter-life crisis with songs that try to reconcile past with present, youth with growth, and grit with polish.
With every album, Cloud Nothings have bailed on their past and re-shaped themselves into something more vital. Over their first three albums, Cleveland native Dylan Baldi seemed to be flooring the pedal in search of inspiration, from the lo-fi indie of singles collection Turning On to the pop-punk indebted self-titled debut to the increasingly serrated and howling peaks of Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else. Somewhere in the long-gestating creation of their new album, however, Baldi stopped sprinting and briefly stalled out.
By now the story of (still incredibly young) Dylan Baldi is well-known, but it so easily couldn't be. Starting as a college-freshman-on-GarageBand-solo-act like many others around the late Noughties, Cloud Nothings started off as a respectable act with some promise, but some distance yet to go. Then at the beginning of 2012, Baldi (now with full band) unleashed his Steve Albini-produced third record Attack on Memory and everything changed.
Amid a landscape of complex productions, guest spots and collaborations, it’s good to know that bands like Cloud Nothings are out there, doing their thing. And four albums into their existence as a band we now have a pretty good handle on what their thing is: Nirvana meets Green Day grunge-pop, unpretentious guitar music that rides on intense currents from time to time, but which ultimately serves as the perfect vehicle for carrying frontman Dylan Baldi’s invariably fine hooks. Their self-titled debut album might have set the tone, but it was their 2012 follow-up Attack On Memory that truly started to define it, and 2014’s Here And Nowhere Else that really perfected it.
Anxiety about the future doesn’t hold the same grip on Dylan Baldi’s songwriting that it once did. On previous Cloud Nothings albums, Baldi expressed misgivings for what the future may hold, both seemingly out of a fear of growing up and, conversely, of never changing. Now 25, the singer-songwriter credits his band’s shift in direction on their fifth album, Life Without Sound, to the pace of his life slowing down.
Our take on their fourth full-length. It’s been almost three years since Cloud Nothings, fronted by the prodigious Dylan Baldi, released their last album.While they’ve ramped up the production values on this follow-up, its nine tracks retain the reckless zest for life that have defined their creators’ output. It’s there in the gloomy new wave of opener ‘Up To The Surface’, in the brash and breathless proto-punk of ‘Darkened Rings’ and the jittery rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Sight Unseen’.You even hear it in the gurgling screams of closer ‘Realize My Fate’, transforming it into a torrent of beautifully nihilistic noise.
We know what to expect from Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi by now. Now six years into his career under his Cloud Nothings alias, Baldi has carved out his reputation from writing tangled rock songs that encapsulate those 20-something mood swings of feeling peppy then nihilistic in a very short timespan. On the band’s fourth record Life Without Sound we hear Baldi taking a more polished and ruminative approach under producer John Goodmanson.
Dylan Baldi is the beating heart of Cloud Nothings; the frontman’s spitting, agitated vocals teamed with the band’s ability to piece together hooky, pop-punk has seen them establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the indie rock world. Life Without Sound is an emotional rock record at its core; most notably on the catchy choruses of Modern Act or Sight Unseen, which emphasises Cloud Nothings’ relentless energy and fondness for a guitar solo or two. The album feels less polished than their previous releases, taking a cue from grunge and garnering influences from early Pavement or vintage Smashing Pumpkins.
The thing about being a punk is, you can’t be a punk alone. It’s a designator that hinges on the shunning of, or at least a displeasure towards society. But to be a punk is not only to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo, it is also to align yourself with a group of similarly minded individuals. But Dylan Baldi, frontman of Cloud Nothings, whose four previous albums have drawn influence from a wide range of punk rock from the 1970s through the 90s, has admitted to being a musical loner growing up; he told Pitchfork he never identified as a punk himself.