Album Review: Nothing – The Great Dismal

The Breakdown

2020's best shoegaze album.

Philadelphia shoegaze quartet Nothing have had to contend with so much bad luck over their decade of making music that it’s quite surprising they’re still around. Debut album ‘Guilty of Everything’ (2014) was written and recorded following a fug of depression that frontman Domenic ‘Nicky’ Palermo experienced in the four years after his release from incarceration for stabbing another man in a fight that occurred whilst he was fronting the hardcore punk band Horror Show. Palermo was then savagely beaten and bereaved from his father immediately prior to the recording of sophomore effort ‘Tired of Tomorrow’ (2016). That album’s release was further complicated by the fact that it was due to be released on Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records label, but when controversial former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli was revealed to be a major financier of that label, Nothing felt forced to pull out and return to their previous label, Relapse. The recording of third album ‘Dance on the Blacktop’ (2018) was beset by fights between band members that producer John Agnello was forced to break up. With multiple line-up changes factored into the mix, it has been quite a tempestuous decade for the band. Whether because of this or despite this, it has also been a decade that has seen them perform some of the world’s loudest, heaviest, crunchiest shoegaze and be hailed as standard-bearers for the shoegaze revival. Fourth album ‘The Great Dismal’ sees the band maintaining the high quality of their output and is also 2020’s best shoegaze album.

It opens with tender six-minute ballad ‘A Fabricated Life’ before producer extraordinaire Will Yip brings his trademark crunching, multi-layered sound to Palermo and Doyle Martin’s guitars (as he has done previously on La Dispute’s ‘Rooms of the House’ (2014), Title Fight’s ‘Hyperview’ (2015), and Defeater’s ‘Defeater’ (2019)) on songs like ‘April Ha Ha’, ‘Catch a Fade’, and excellent lead single ‘Say Less’. Palermo’s vocals take on this sort of soaring, gorgeous quality to them and work in tandem with the sound of Martin’s shrieking yet melodic lead guitar on side one closer ‘Famine Asylum’ in a way that brings to mind why ‘Dance on the Blacktop’ was such essential listening during long walks through the park in the Indian summer of 2018.

Side two opens with the upbeat choruses of ‘Bernie Sanders’ before Palermo laments that “paradise is always somewhere else” on ‘In Blueberry Memories’. The looped-sounding quality of Kyle Kimball’s drums on the latter song, which is also present on songs like ‘Say Less’, helps the music to maintain a brisk, upbeat pace, even when the lyrics are fairly bleak. ‘Blue Mecca’ and ‘Just a Story’ are among the album’s slower songs, but the guitars still have this excellent, crisp, crunching, heavy sound to them for the majority of their duration. ‘Ask the Rust’ makes for a great way to close the album and like many of the other songs on ‘The Great Dismal’ has upbeat-sounding vocals and a rocky lead guitar sound, but these aspects are revealed to be slightly deceptive as Palermo ends the album by intoning gravely “In time, anything will fade/Everything decays”.

‘The Great Dismal’ sees Nothing maintain their status as the top band in modern shoegaze. By increasing the volume settings on Palermo’s and Martin’s guitars from the levels they were at on ‘Dance on the Blacktop’ while simultaneously making the lead vocals even hookier and more melodic than they were on that album (and Will Yip’s work at the controls, alongside the band’s hardcore punk backgrounds, were doubtless key to the former attribute), they have delivered an album that manages to be even more immediately impactful than its predecessor. Whether it stands the test of time or not is another matter, but at this stage in the game, I can say with complete confidence that this is the best shoegaze album to have been released this year. It contains a near-perfect blend of melody, heaviness, and well-honed songwriting. ‘Dance on the Blacktop’ was my second favourite album of 2018 and I must confess to having had my doubts as to whether Nothing could better it, but they have managed to do so. This is a collection of ten remarkably enjoyable songs performed by a band who are actually now beginning to sound like they enjoy writing and playing music together. It should go down well with fans of My Bloody Valentine, Cheatahs, and Ringo Deathstarr. ‘The Great Dismal’ is out now via Relapse. Order it here.

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