Nothing – The Great Dismal
Written by Mark Anderson on October 11, 2020
Philadelphia heavy gazers Nothing are back with a new album, in what must be described as an attempt to make 2020 not a complete and total loss. The Great Dismal was conceived when singer and songwriter Dominic Palermo picked up a copy of the New York Times from a newsstand and saw the famous first photograph of a black hole, taken by scientists in 2019. True enough, he couldn’t escape it. The photograph was framed, placed above his writing desk, and onto his notepad a single mantra for the new record was written: “Existence hurts existence.” With previous album Dance on the Blacktop championed as a soundtrack to an end of the world party, there is some satisfying continuity at play in learning that The Great Dismal has its origins in the imagery of universal collapse.
The album opens on the genteel yet euphoric “A Fabricated Life”. Whispered vocals over a slowly building soundscape welcomes us into these new sonic vistas. Destined to be the final track on many a mixtape or playlist, this song has ‘future classic’ written all over it. Truly timeless.
This contrasts with the sonic assault of “Say Less” immediately thereafter. Literally exploding onto the speakers, and all the more impactful because of the slow building burn of the previous song. I instantly loved this track. There is a deft use of dynamics, especially around the choruses, and a driving backbeat that will not be denied. The chorus is superb, and lifts the song to new heights.
“April Ha Ha” begins with some powerful dive bombs on the tremolo before a soaring guitar solo leads us into the song. This has all the hallmarks of a classic Nothing track with the addition of some wonderfully serpentine vocals from Palermo. Almost puts me in mind of the hypnotic “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book. Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish that I appreciate the line “watching people trying to outrun rain”.
I love how the band are playing with new textures on this album. “Catch a Fade” has an almost straight-up indie jangle pop vibe until those trademark Nothing guitars kick in half way through, shredding the twee soundscape. This is the sound of a band having fun experimenting with their sound and offering their fans something new. Sometimes when successful bands try to stretch their signature sound it fails to pay off, or comes across as self-indulgent, but Nothing knows what they’re doing. It pays off in buckets.
As we head into “Famine Asylum” something is becoming more and more clear: the band have focused on the songs first. Everything else is in service to the core melody. Whilst some heavy bands can lose (or simply bury) their tunes in endless walls of distortion, Nothing have ensured their songs are built from reinforced concrete. There is no concealing the beauty of these compositions.
Second single “Bernie Sanders” follows, opening on that eerie reverse string scratch. Such a great track to introduce new ears to this album. Soaring guitars will lead the way, but there is always space given to the punchy vocal line. The track is accompanied by quite an eye-catching video which is not for the squeamish.
We are back in dynamic Nothing territory next with “In Blueberry Memories”. Swinging from hushed vocals to pounding drums and fuzzed out guitars on the bleeding edge of static. Never losing the melody, the mix is superb, lifting the vocal where required to make sure the glorious melodies shine through.
“Blue Mecca” has the lolling feel of a lullaby, but you ain’t sleeping through this song. More new textures are introduced in the latter half with high-pitched trilling strings contrasting with the growling guitars.
“Just a Story” mixes things up by starting on a choral line undercut by an insistent guitar riff ebbing and flowing beneath it. The guitars are the star on this track: from the fuzzed-out attack of the verses to the soaring elation in the chorus, “Just a Story” has it all.
The album closes on a heavy note. “Ask the Rust” bookends this album with yet another killer chorus. What this album has in spades is hooks. Every song makes you sit up and take notice, and the closer is no exception. Dynamic, catchy and full of all the characteristics that make Nothing one of the leading lights on the shoegaze scene.
The Great Dismal feels like the album Nothing have been destined to make since the start. At the beginning of this assessment I spoke about the album’s theme of universal collapse. Lyrically I don’t doubt that. However, and this is a massive however, musically this album is jubilant. The overwhelming joy you will feel from listening to this album will bring you back again and again. The songs are memorable, the propulsion is compelling, the sonic worlds are expansive and engaging. Could we be looking at the album of the year? I’ll let you decide.
Creeping up to the decade mark as a band, it now seems that Palermo & Co. have a firm grasp on what they need to succeed. Woe be unto anyone to deny them their crown, or try to stand in their way.