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NOTHING: Dance On The Blacktop Review

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The shoegaze revival is largely a reboot: The leading bands of today are the leading bands of a quarter century ago. My Bloody Valentine’s revelatory 2013 album landed like a dare, coaxing long-dormant peers out of retirement. Slowdive, Ride and The Jesus and Mary Chain have all released new albums since Trump took office. It’s not hard to imagine a fat Coachella check awaiting Catherine Wheel when they finally decide to reunite.

The flipside: Few young bands have managed to establish a substantial legacy within the genre’s resurgence. Yes, there’s Deafheaven, which tilts aggressively towards the metal and post-rock end of the scale, and M83, which pivoted from its dreamy early LPs to sultry, synthpop sax solos faster than you could say “Olympic theme song.”

Then there is NOTHING, the bracingly loud Philadelphia band, which amassed a following with 2014’s Guilty of Everything and has become a reliably formidable exception to the rule. The band’s music uncannily resembles a portal to 1993: roaring guitars, breathy vocals, and an overarching heaviness that owes more to Swervedriver than Loveless. And its story is a dramatic one: Frontman Nicky Palermo spent a couple years in prison for a stabbing incident (he pleaded self-defense) and got out, only to wind up being violently assaulted and nearly killed following a concert.

With studio assistance from veteran producer John Agnello, NOTHING’s third album, Dance on the Blacktop, is sleek and hooky, refining the band’s approach without undermining that omnipresent distortion blare. Palermo still favors the noisy guitar attack—according to an NPR profile, it reflects the “dizziness and unrelenting headaches” he experienced following his assault injuries—but has also managed to develop his sweeter melodic instincts. There are intriguing moments of vulnerability here: “Blue Line Baby” vacillates between a thick, sludgy guitar roar and dreamy verses, climaxing with a brief but disarming acoustic respite. “Hail on Palace Pier” lingers on a distinctly Beatles-esque seventh chord at the end of each chorus, a neat melodic trick to match its majestic title.

The singer remains haunted by his injuries, both in song and in daily reality. Before writing the album, he was diagnosed with early stage CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease that typically stems from major head trauma. The record’s sludgiest track, “Plastic Migraine,” directly confronts the resulting frustrations: “Bracing for more fatigue / I won’t stand on two feet, or fall / I’ve hit the wall,” Palermo sings, his voice at perpetual war with guitarist Brandon Setta’s arsenal of distortion pedals. “Zero Day” is even bleaker, though you’ll have to consult a lyrics site to decipher bummed-out proclamations like “Light abandons me / I guess I wasn’t meant to see.”

By now, NOTHING has mastered the heavy shoegaze toolbox; Blacktop tweaks the style but doesn’t meaningfully depart from what the band has already accomplished. (Particularly, it would be nice to hear a wider or more curious range of guitar textures, as these textures risk growing monotonous.) It does, though, bring a resonant emotional depth to NOTHING’s particular brand of fuzzy nihilism. The penultimate track, “The Carpenter’s Son,” is a lengthy, dreamlike tribute to Palermo’s father, who struggled with addiction and eventually drowned during a biking accident. For the singer, the tragedy marked another blow in a lifetime of loss. “Nothing’s a surprise,” Palermo sings, over and over, as the song slowly disappears in a funereal fog of mourning.

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