Even moreso than their louder last release The Great Destroyer, this new album by Low is a big departure for a group who was once known for their slow and steady ways. After a release where the trio toyed with slightly more pop structures and sounds, Drums And Guns actually veers back towards a more slow and deliberate sound, but instrumentally it's completely different than what one has come to expect from the group. Produced by Dave Fridmann, who is usually known for his sometimes over-the-top grandeur, it's a downright stark release that largely strips both guitars and the titled drums from the mix in favor of synths, organs, and drum machines.
The production itself is still worth mentioning, even though it's not as flowery as normal, because there are some unique (and somewhat odd) choices that make the release even more strange. For one, vocals are panned hard-right on every single track, with other instrumentation nearly-always hard-panned in either channel. Combined with some of their most direct lyrics to date, it's an album of extremes, but rather than coming across as shocking or disconcerting, much of the output is simply there; it's pretty enough while playing but lacks the punch to really stick once the album has stopped spinning.
Saying that the album lacks melodic edge is a bad excuse, because Low has never been a group that's written massive hooks. That said, there's something about the short tracks (thirteen tracks run just over forty minutes) that largely lack vitality, despite the valiant lurch in a new direction. Tracks like "Belarus" are a perfect example, with nothing more than a filtered choral loops, string samples, simple drum programming, and sparse bass notes providing backing while Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker do their typically nice vocal harmonies. The thin "Breaker" is even more strange, with pitter-pat beats, thin organs, and backwards swirls of guitars behind climbing vocal melodies that sound so, so familiar.
In places, the group ratchets up the tension in potent ways. "Sandinista" mingles some live, marching snares in with stark bass and subdued guitar feedback while Sparhawk and Parker pull off some of their best vocals of the album while "Murderer" reworks an old single by the group into a squirming, claustrophobic piece that shivers with quiet guitar and more live percussion. In the past two years, the band has not only had to deal with long-time bassist Zac Sally leaving the band, but also Sparhawk suffering a mental breakdown (along with the birth of another child), so some change was certainly in order. At the end of it all, Guns And Drums feels more like an inconsistent experiment than a full fledged step forward. Long time fans will probably want to hear things out, but others will probably want to venture earlier into their catalogue.