I’ll admit that I’ve never heard of Lower Dens prior to the hype leading up to the release of their latest album, Nootropics (pronounced “No-eh-tropics”). Shame on me, I know. But after listening to this album, I am completely sold on the Baltimore-based quintet led by vocalist Jana Hunter. In the past she’s been a touring member for renowned artists such as Devendra Banhart, Marissa Nadler, Deer Tick, and Peter & the Wolf, so she’s definitely a diverse artist in her own right. After going through a few lineup changes, she finally settled in with guitarist William Adams, bassist Geoffrey Graham, drummer Nate Nelson, and keyboardist Carter Tanton.
After an initial listen, what Lower Dens have done is create a new form of dream-pop and shoegaze in not only in an ethereal way, but also something that’s borderline sci-fi, spacey, and cosmic. Add to the fact that Hunter was exploring the idea of transhumanism (use of technology to enhance the human condition) as the overarching concept of this album.
Nootropics opens with “Alphabet Song” and sets up the mood for the rest of the album. Nelson and Tanton make their presence immediately felt with the subtle percussion and tip-toeing synths that shadow a keyboard melody and Hunter’s husky vocals. “Brains” is driven by the precise, metronomic drums repeat the same pattern throughout the song, building tension along with the discordant guitar lines. At about the two-minute mark, Hunter’s indistinguishable vocals fade in hauntingly, slithering in and out until they become clear again to close out the song. The next track “Stem” continues interrupted, acting as an instrumental extension to “Brains,” carrying a similar rhythm. The only difference here is that instruments like the arpeggiated guitars, thick bass, and dancing synths take precedence.
“Propagation” can be likened to contemporaries like Warpaint in its etherealness. Hunter’s vocals are reverberated, filling the room a nice echo with ghostly vocal melodies that linger in the background, harmonizing halfway through the song. The hollowed, drone-like bass provides a monotone groove that pulls you in like a black hole, reminiscent of the dream-pop of the 80s ala Lush.
The mid-tempo number “Candy” relies on Adams’ lingering guitar riffs, incorporating a tremolo at various parts of the song to give it that eerie effect. It’s pretty minimal in structure, with the rhythm section bringing to mind the post-punk/new wave sound of the late 70s.
“Lion in Winter Pt. 1” is a four-minute instrumental track filled with different layers of meandering noise and electronic waves, acting as the ambient complement to “Lion in Winter Pt. 2.” The second part is centered on a bouncing electronic beat, with a typical pop structure surrounding it.
“Nova Anthem” is one of the slower-paced tracks on the album, but also the most gorgeous. Minimal in arrangement, Hunter’s drawn-out vocals are sung over church-like organ chord progressions that harmonize and emphasize each other glowingly, backed by the clacking percussion. Her voice soars at around the three-minute mark, showing how dynamic of a singer she can be.
The closing track “In the End is the Beginning” not only hints at their success, but their ability to write a 12-minute epic. It pulls you in with a sprawling bass line, twinkling synths, and Hunter’s transcendent vocals and takes you through a surreal experience. Guitars lunge towards you at spontaneous moments, adding to the overall dark tone of the song. It’s as if you were in the mind of Salvador Dali and seeing all the madness in his head that transferred over onto his canvas. The track fades out to a close, waking you up, and making you question what the hell just happened.
With Nootropics, Lower Dens may have crafted an offshoot of dream-pop. Themes that encompass technology and the human condition, a sound that’s overall dark with music that is heavily layered with synthesizers, simple drums, wailing guitars, and echoing vocals, how can this not be called sci-fi pop? To the root of it, this is a ridiculously impressive album and easily one of the best of the year. Referring back to the last track, it signifies that this is going to be the beginning of Lower Dens on their way to reaching new heights.