Cloud Nothings performing

Cloud Nothings performing.

Since its beginning Cloud Nothings has always pushed the envelope on the broad definition of mainstream indie-rock. With each successive album the band added new layers of refinement and innovation. But Cloud Nothings’ most recent effort “Life Without Sound” falls short of the greatness inherent in these past albums. Part of this is unfortunately a result of the band turning its back on the very principles that made it great.

In 2009 Dylan Baldi, the rhythm guitarist and principal songwriter for the indie-rock outfit Cloud Nothings, attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to study audio recording technology. During his free time over the weekends he would return to his parents’ home to record lo-fi rock version of pop songs drenched in feedback-ridden guitar tones.

Baldi had many different fake bands and projects at the time but the songs he released under the name Cloud Nothings began to gain some traction in the music community. It was then that Baldi decided to drop out of school and focus solely on the project. In 2010 Baldi added TJ Duke on bass, Jayson Gerycz on drums and Joe Boyer on lead guitar to Cloud Nothings lineup.

The resulting two albums “Turning On” and “Cloud Nothings” were abrasively droning post-punk abstracts. While the occasional iceberg tip of an excellent pop song would surface in these early works they were always hidden beneath an ocean of distorted guitars, whiny vocals and white noise. The ideas were there; the melodic intricacies were not.

It wasn’t until 2012’s “Attack on Memory” that Baldi found his voice as a songwriter. In particular the song “Stay Useless” encapsulates themes present throughout the album. The lyrics deal with uncertainty found in the future, anxiety over time lost and perpetual states of arrested development.

From a production standpoint every instrument is distinguished and highlighted. Nothing distracts from the furious pacing.

But if “Attack on Memory” was an album that dealt with coming of age themes with nervous agitation then 2014’s “Here and Nowhere Else” approaches these topics with outright rage. Strikingly darker than its predecessor, “Here and Nowhere Else” stripped the group down to a three-piece after Boyer left the band.

To compensate for this loss, Baldi wrote some of his most dense and dynamic song material to date. The song “I’m Not Part of Me” is almost indisputably the best song Cloud Nothings has ever made. While never compromising its breakneck speed, the song gets increasingly catchy until it reaches its ruthlessly infectious chorus. Dylan half sings, half screams “I’m not, I’m not you / You’re a part of me, you’re a part of me” as Gerycz furiously hammers away a minimalist drumkit.

Following the success of “Here and Nowhere Else” Baldi went on to make the collaborative album “No Life for Me” with contemporary surf-punk icon Nathan Williams of the band Wavves. The album is a violent clashing of the two songwriters’ styles but unfortunately fails to stand alone as a piece. However, certain songs like “How It’s Gonna Go” redeem the stilted effort.

Cloud Nothings’ most recent work, “Life Without Sound” was released Jan. 27. The album finds Baldi trading in his signature fierceness for a more user-friendly sound. The band also added guitarist Chris Brown to its lineup for the album.

In some areas of the album this decision to embrace the underlying pop aesthetic found in most Cloud Nothings songs pays off in dividends. The song “Up To the Surface” kicks off the album with a dramatic piano instrumental before diving into a multidimensional subject about the terrors of the mind. Other songs like “Modern Act” feature Baldi as a contemporary power-pop master.

Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings fails to push the entire album toward this sensible direction. Songs like “Darkened Rings” and “Strange Year” feel out of place as Baldi screams and attacks his guitar. These pieces distract and disconnect the listener from what should be a bold new phase for the band.

“Life Without Sound” feels like Baldi has one foot firmly planted in the moshable energy and screams of the post-punk genre that made Cloud Nothings well known. However the other foot is exploring sounds consistent with the radio friendly nature of power-pop. This unwillingness to commit in either direction detracts from “Life Without Sound” and tarnishes the previously bold efforts of “Here and Nowhere Else” and “Attack On Memory”.

Drew Cowen is a junior media arts and design and English double major. Contact Drew at cowends@dukes.jmu.edu.