The backstory of Cloud Nothings’ founder Dylan Baldi, who began to work as a solo indie rock act during his time at university, is about as standard as they come. However, this perhaps makes Cloud Nothings’ subsequent success even more intriguing. Around the late noughties, when Baldi was in college, was the time that a lot of rock bands were starting to chase really washed-out sounds with heavily reverbed guitars and ambient effects, and the influence that this had on Baldi is highly prominent on Cloud Nothings’ self-titled debut. The project’s magnum opus Attack on Memory, however, saw Baldi not only gain a complete band, but Cloud Nothings’ sound also began to incorporate more influences than just that of typical pop rock bands prominent at the time. Most notably, Attack on Memory pulled from styles including post-hardcore and old-school emo, as well as noise rock and punk rock. Moreover, the progression of the first two tracks on this album, No Future/No Past and Wasted Days, is akin to the compositional styles of some classic post-rock outfits. The result was a well-crafted album of myriad influences that came together neatly in some rather emotionally-driven songs that, despite their diverse mixture of influences, are highly accessible. Unfortunately, the follow-up to Attack on Memory, 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, saw the band lose guitarist Joe Boyer and the record seemed to suffer as a result. These songs sounded less vibrant and dynamic than those on the previous album and this problem can arguably be attributed to the lack of Boyer’s leads to contrast Baldi’s rhythm guitar. With the news of Cloud Nothings’ next album, Life Without Sound, came the news of new guitarist Chris Brown, who had been touring with the group and was officially made a member for the recording of this studio album. This change, in my eyes, potentially pointed to the band returning to a sound more akin to that of Attack on Memory, and the fact that this new album also features a lo-fi seascape photo on the cover reinforced this assumption. After listening to the album, it seems that the band have returned to an earlier sound, but it feels somewhere between that of their first two records. The result is mixed in certain regards, as the diverse and colourful arrangements of Attack on Memory make a slight reappearance here, but the lack of memorability that featured on Cloud Nothings’ debut is also evident on certain songs.
The first handful of tracks demonstrate a more focussed and nuanced approach compared to that featured on Here and Nowhere Else, with some of these tracks coming across as more vibrant due to the increased use of dynamics and pretty lead guitar lines. The simple piano and slightly crunchy guitars on Up to the Surface go over as more poppy in nature, but nonetheless retain elements of the band’s other influences. For a song that is so simple in structure, it feels very well-developed and shows a maturity and a subtlety that was scarce on the group’s previous album. This opening song features a lot of great guitar melodies that are played for emphasis very well along with the fluctuating dynamics of the composition. Although, I must say that one of these tunes, which is played by the lead guitar at around two and a half minutes into the song, reminds me so much of the chorus to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida that I cannot hear this part without mentally inserting Chris Martin’s lyrics over the top of it. Despite this, Up to the Surface, whilst not blowing me away, is a nice introduction to Life Without Sound that raised my hopes for the album noticeably.
Things Are Right With You, the record’s second track, is a pretty straightforward indie rock song in structure, but Cloud Nothings bring plenty to the table that make it stand out. Firstly, the willingness to explore dynamics returns here, albeit in a much more slight and predictable fashion. Brown’s very simple guitar lines pay off well, providing good counterpoint to Baldi’s melodic vocals, which are even joined by some great backing melodies at one point that provide the song with varying textures that are really quite enjoyable to listen to. Enter Entirely is similarly predictable in structure whilst also displaying some interesting flourishes. For instance, the melodious solo from Brown with his lovely warm and crunchy guitar tone is a nice addition, and this track stands out for the accented chromatic chord during the chorus. Outside of these elements, however, the rest of the song is so basic that it comes close to being rather unmemorable in a similar fashion as to much of the material on Cloud Nothings’ first album. A few songs on here, in fact, I find almost instantly forgettable, with Internal World coming to mind as an early example. The song’s lack of anything resembling an intro doesn’t go down well, as it feels as if the listener has been thrown right into the middle of a generic rock song. The rest of the composition progresses in such a predictable way that there is little benefit to much of the band’s usual exploration of subtle dynamics which, by this point on the record, has already made itself perfectly clear. Later tracks in this album’s runtime, most notably Sight Unseen and Strange Year, suffer from similar problems, but arguably more exacerbated, with very little of note happening in either of these two cuts. Whilst not terrible songs by any means, they seem to add nothing to the tracklisting in that they don’t display any of the keenness to explore nuances and subtleties that is evident on earlier songs on the album. These songs are notably overshadowed by the closing track, Realize My Fate, which is a fitting closer and summation of the playing around with dynamics that appears on the better cuts from Life Without Sound. This song feels like it’s constantly moving towards an epic climax as a result of the increasingly noisy and slightly discordant guitars paired with the crescendos in the plodding straight crotchet drum pattern. Baldi’s vocals also come closer and closer to yelling before he goes all out towards the end of this cut, as the rest of the instrumentation approaches a chaotic and cacophonous climax that wraps the record up on a high note.
Life Without Sound is somewhat of a return to form for Cloud Nothings, but is certainly a mixed one at that. The better tracks on here bode well for future releases from the band, whereas the more lacking tracks worry me that future releases may suffer from some of the same problems that appear here. Nonetheless, I feel that the good cuts on here outweigh the lacklustre ones, and I certainly feel that the maturation and nuance demonstrated on these tracks leaves a good enough impression that my feelings for this record are positive overall, whilst still mixed in many regards. With more focus and further growth, Cloud Nothings could definitely come out with a record that matches Attack on Memory‘s successful blending of numerous influences and its colourful and textured sound, and the better cuts on Life Without Sound demonstrate this.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10