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Record review: Lilac Shadows' Brutalism

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From the start, Durham's Lilac Shadows skewed toward moody psych-rock, but they never surrendered to the sullen. Their 2012 debut, A Shallow Madness, nodded to The Cure and The The, but the title track still rose from slinking balladry to triumphant New Wave—uplifting and fulfilling stuff, even three years later. They fostered that same balance for the ambitious and spacy 2014 full-length, No Dark/No Light.

But when Lilac Shadows started to record No Dark/No Light's follow-up last March, they shifted settings. Where the previous tunes had been cut at home and in practice spaces, they opted now for a reclaimed warehouse, surrounded by aging industrial detritus. They loaded their gear into the old location of Bull City creative-reuse institution, The Scrap Exchange. Recording in the middle of the floor, Lilac Shadows indulged the dimly lit space's post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

The setting had a palpable effect on the sessions and their result, the remarkable and arresting EP, Brutalism. Undeniably shaded by the dystopian environment, these songs offer a remarkable leap for an already-capable outfit. From No Dark/No Light, Lilac Shadows have entered full-on dark, abandoning any earlier ebullience.

Brutalism begins with "Black Lodge," where nervy guitar undulations coil around a menacing bassline. Think The Black Angels' super-serious plod yielding to the influence of My Bloody Valentine. For the next seven tracks, Brutalism navigates through melancholy territory, responding by alternating subdued resignation with frustrated rage. Effected guitars swirl around each other. Angry howls disappear into walls of sound.

"The city breathes/I still lose sleep," frontman Sam Logan confesses as "Alive in Dying History" builds. Discombobulated noises punctuate urgent guitar and thundering drums before the song breaks into a sprint. "Someone's turning/someone's turning/was my future not worth learning?" Logan hollers, his pained vocals buried under a cascading close. (Disclosure: INDY employee Reed Benjamin plays in Lilac Shadows.) "Fly in the Ointment" begins like a darkened Jawbox number, but a wandering bassline recalls Radiohead's OK Computer, casting a paranoid pall across the track.

Brutalism delivers a study in tension and release. The individual songs play off those properties, sometimes inverting the order. This ups the anxiety until the careful three-minute drone "(brutalism)" empties into album closer, "MORE." On one of their finest tracks to date, Lilac Shadows release an EP's worth of tension in a single moment. It starts like an organic translation of Kraftwerk, with a driving Motorik beat and minimalist bass. Other elements slowly emerge—vocals, guitar, synthesizer—until the third minute, when the song erupts into a surge of guitars, drums and noise. It's magnificent, elemental and rich with animal emotion—the culmination of Lilac Shadows' increasing art-rock prowess, unveiled in one outburst.

Label: DiggUp Tapes

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