Words: Killian Barry

Based in Baltimore and spearheaded by experimental folk artist Jana Hunter, Lower Dens make music that is languorous, but purposeful. Sophomore album Nootropics is consistent with the aesthetic of 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement, blending unhurried and ambient guitar waves with smatterings of more urgent moments. This time, Lower Dens are also synthed to the max. Here, their rather grand stated aim is to explore the interaction of human and technological evolution (transhumanism), hence the title’s reference to cognition-enhancing drugs. If this ambitious five-piece seek to transcend through their music, they encounter varying degrees of success.
Nootropics’ tone is typified by the captivating ‘Brains’, with drifting, lazy vocals echoing and reverberating across a woozy synth-layered ambience, propelled by steady bass and punctuated with sharp, incisive drums. Equally thrilling is the sprightly and pulsating ‘Lion in Winter Pt. 2’, a track more conducive to toe-tapping than any other found here. In keeping with weighty thematic concerns, though, the dominant vibe is highly considered, less instant. On first inspection, tracks such as single ‘Propagation’ and the soaring ‘Nova Anthem’ do not necessarily stick, but they do reveal their depth across multiple listens.
Though Nootropics is not without the inevitable twelve-minute bout of rambling self-indulgence, a steady percussive pulse thankfully keeps the album alive throughout, rescuing the dreamier and more nebulous of tracks from disappearing down a swirling vortex of experimental navel-gazing. Yes, Nootropics seems frequently aimless and meandering, often to be heard rather than listened to. The absence of distinct hooks and conventional choruses is unengaging. But even when they lack bite, Lower Dens invest meticulous depth and meaning to the cold washed-out sounds that are indicative of their work. And, conversely, when the music is more structured (‘Brains’, for example), it is almost mechanical, a feature which alludes both to the band’s interest in technological order and to various Krautrock influences.
Lower Dens have produced a work bathed in texture. It ebbs and flows. It grows. It is meandering yet carefully crafted, ethereal yet grounded. Though it will not find universal appeal, Lower Dens must be admired for their craft and discipline, and if for that reason alone, Nootropics will find a receptive audience.