Yeah, I won’t lie, I was a little worried about this one.
See, I was among the few that actually seemed willing to get on-board with Cloud Nothings making a more accessible, borderline pop punk-friendly record in 2017 in Life Without Sound – no, it wasn’t the razor-sharp explosion that characterized Attack On Memory which remains their best work, but I didn’t expect that to return. And by hiring a second guitarist to flesh out the melodies, I actually found a lot to like on that project, an album that at least seemed wiling to push the band out of their comfort zone, both sonically and lyrically.
And yet given the rather mixed critical reception that project got, I wasn’t surprised when buzz was suggesting the band was going to wrench their sound back into darker territory – and when I say ‘dark’, I mean hiring Randall Dunn, a producer most well known for Earth, Sunn O))) and Wolves In The Throne Room, the last being a black metal band. And when you hear that the band was intentionally looking to go back to the scuzzy, nastier era produced by Steve Albini… well, I had high hopes, but this might wind up as a very different animal than I was expecting. But hey, what did Cloud Nothings deliver on Last Building Burning?
So here’s the thing: I think if you’re going to make any analysis of Last Building Burning, Attack On Memory shouldn’t be the only comparison point, because there are a fair few other points from which Cloud Nothings is pulling inspiration for their sound while creating something that’s really a different animal from most of what they’ve made. By far it’s their best album since Attack On Memory – although again, I’d question if it quite surpasses it – but I can imagine folks who got on board after Life Without Sound with its more accessible tones… well, you might be in for a rude awakening.
But is that entirely the case? Again, the comparison can be made to Attack On Memory for the much more aggressive sonic palette and some of the band’s tightest compositions, but if you look to some of the arrangement choices and hooks this band has not moved that far afield from the catchier side of their last album. It’s just that the tempos are more aggressive, the progressions play with a lot more minor chords, and the textures are thicker, enough to maybe call back to the lo-fi side of Here And Nowhere Else, but the guitarwork from both Dylan Baldi and Chris Brown – no, not that one – is far tighter with a lot more interesting interplay. In fact, if we’re going to look for where Randall Dunn’s influence impacts the band the most, it comes in the guitar production and the density of the tones, where a significant amount of feedback is allowed and howling tone is allowed in but never to the point where it overwhelms the main melody. And yes, this is a very black metal move, and on songs like ‘The Echo Of The World’ I was almost waiting for the tremolo riffing to start with the tonal placement – the flat-out insane drumwork from Jayson Gerycz almost reminded me a bit of blast beats, he remains the band’s greatest hidden weapon – but Cloud Nothings is playing closer to hardcore punk or emo with their tonal placement and especially the lyrics, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Now we do have the inevitable comparison with the production work of Steve Albini, and I’ll say it right now: I still think Albini has the edge with Attack On Memory, and while it’s a closer comparison than ever before, it comes down to vocal layering and groove, where I do have some issues. For one, for as good as TJ Duke’s basslines can be, I’m a little surprised they can feel so drowned out in the mix in comparisons with the drums – and again, the issue is more inconsistency: the subtle melody is essential to how well ‘The Echo Of The World’ works, and when you have the killer melodic grooves of ‘In Shame’, ‘Offer An End’, ‘Another Way Of Life’, and especially the slow-burning ‘So Right So Clean’, I’m a little baffled why they don’t come through with ‘On An Edge’. And this also goes to the vocal lines – yes, Dylan Baldi’s vocals being somewhat drowned out is a common occurrence, but when you actually have them actually picking up a more developed vocal arrangement off of Life Without Sound, it’s a little baffling why this is still happening, especially as the hooks are one of this band’s greatest assets. And on that note, we need to talk about the longest cut here: the nearly eleven minute, feedback-choked ‘Dissolution’… which for the record, I do like and I can almost appreciate the more jagged, borderline improvisational spurts that erupt over the extended instrumental passage, but for what it is, I’m not quite sure I can justify the length.
And this takes us to the content, where if there’s been a shift since the last album, it’s most definitely here, and also the first time Cloud Nothings might fit close to the most recent wave of emo, because there is some nasty, nihilistic subject matter on display, with the sort of unrepentant contempt that can be a tough sell coming after the hesitant idealism of the last project! And you all know I’m not an easy sell for nihilistic art, but Cloud Nothings gets a lot of what I’m looking for in this style right, the most notable being the framing: namely that none of this is supposed to make them look good, and there’s absolutely zero disaffected pandering going on. Take ‘Leave Him Now’, the sort of song I normally despise as the ‘talk girl into dumping boyfriend’ track, but it actually manages to work because our protagonist never frames himself as the alternative, making it very clear that she needs to be free of this guy and alone to think about what she really wants. Similar case with ‘In Shame’ – he’s acting like a total asshole on this song on a massive ego trip, but it’s undercut at every turn because he’s clearly acting out for attention and nobody’s giving it to him. And then there’s ‘Dissolution’, where he almost craves the toxic relationship to blunt the loneliness when she’s somewhere else, but again, he’s fully aware he’s in no shape to be around anyone! And it’s not getting better, the ideal life isn’t happening, and you might as well deal with the hard endings and maybe something better will come after. And while none of that seems likely – the line ‘I wish I could believe in your dream’ on ‘So Right So Clean’ is an absolutely vicious one – by the closing track there’s at least an acknowledgement that something has to change, as he’s not really going anywhere, he’s at least conscious of the feelings of those around him, and maybe something can be changed or fixed – likely not with any significant other, but salvaging any life at the end is worth it, right?
So yeah, Last Building Burning is a dark, vicious, generally unforgiving album to everything and everyone, setting it all on fire so a new foundation can be laid on the salted ground… and it’s kind of great in that lane! Again, you can make the Attack On Memory comparisons forever, but for as jaded and nihilistic as this can feel and yet find the nuance, framing, and fiery hooks to stand out, I’ll recommend it without question, netting an 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation! Again, if you’ve only heard Life Without Sound this might be a heel turn you’re not expecting, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it.