The iconic producer Steve Albini has worked from the same room for 20 years. The doors of his studio have opened for Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and dozens more of the bands that soundtracked the misspent youths of ‘90s teenagers across the world. Cloud Nothings’ third album ‘Attack On Memory’ is the latest record to emerge from Albini’s lair, and makes a serious case for being the newest addition to his long, near-mythical list of alt-rock triumphs.
Cloud Nothings front man Dylan Baldi has made it clear in interviews that the album’s name indicates an attempt to escape from the band’s old sound, and move on to something more adventurous. In the violent squall of ‘No Sentiment’, Baldi sings: “No Nostalgia! No Sentiment!” It perfectly capture the album’s tone. They’re attacking their own musical memory. Albini’s production and a more unconventional approach to songwriting lend the record a maturity that was lacking from their previous efforts, but there are older memories embedded deep in the walls of their legendary recording space that have clearly seeped into their sound. Their musical progression is from juvenile tantrums to grown-up rage, and this is most prominent in the muscular, beefed-up rhythm section, a classic Albini touch that he’s been using on bands since the very beginning.
It’s not been a clean transition though. Instrumental track ‘Separation’ is split between fast-paced DIY punk and a thick sludge of distorted guitar and bass, pounding through riffage that would make the most devoted Black Sabbath fan giggle with excitement. That song, down to even its title, emphasises to the divided feel of this album. It has moments of speaker-shuddering vastness, which are most effective when they burst through the high-treble thrashing that is more reminiscent of the band’s back catalogue. It’s grunge production meeting lo-fi 21st century punk that creates a sound that’s incredibly refreshing in an age of either too much or too little attention to recording quality.
The nuance of the ‘No Nostalgia! No Sentiment!’ declaration is important. This is not an album about rejecting the ostentatious emotionality of rock music from the past two decades. It’s an album of raw emotion that focuses on feelings of frustration, entrapment and insignificance – complex and oft-overlooked sensations associated with the present, not the past or future. On poppy highlight ‘Stay Useless’, Baldi sings: “I need time to stop moving, I need time to stay useless.” It’s a frantic plea for respite from a world demanding more and more of people every day. On the ambitious nine-minute epic ‘Wasted Days’, he repeats: “I thought I would be more than this,” over a thumping chorus, forcing home his fury at feeling aimlessly adrift while everyone else is moving in one direction. By the sound of this album, His response seems to be to push as hard as he can in the opposite direction.
It’s this explosive atmosphere that makes Cloud Nothings’ new record so exciting. In the enthralling tension of album opener ‘No Future No Past’, Baldi repeats the title lyric over a devastating coda to evoke a band that appears to be in a crisis, but are all the more creative for it. ‘Attack On Memory’ is an album that has set out with little idea of where to go, and a stubborn refusal to turn back. This has left it in exactly the right place to make it one of the best alternative albums of recent years.