U Street Music Hall, where Low played Monday night, has hosted many acts that produce the sort of harsh synthetic textures that are among the Duluth, Minn., trio’s current hallmarks. But few of the venue’s previous performers combine buzzes, throbs and bleats with Low’s other specialties: ethereal vocals and visions of salvation.
Low was founded in 1993 by singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk and singer-drummer Mimi Parker, who are married and members of the Mormon Church. (The couple has been joined by a series of bassists, most recently Steve Garrington, also a keyboardist who assisted the move toward a more electronic style.) The duo’s lyrics are cryptic, but such songs as “The Innocents” and “Holy Ghost” — both performed on Monday — seem to address spiritual questing.
The powerful, assured show opened with “Quorum,” also the first track on Low’s raucous but impeccably crafted new album, “Double Negative.” Almost all that record’s material was included in the nearly two-hour set, which emphasized the noisier second half of the group’s recording career. (Sparhawk made a few friendly remarks to the captivated audience, but otherwise the band stayed behind the curtain of noise.) Such occasional earlier tunes as “Silver Rider” sounded pristine amid the sonic grime of the more recent songs. For a few minutes, the guitar and vocals were barely distorted.
One thing that hasn’t changed since Low’s debut is its preferred tempo. While the band’s current style encompasses lots of tonal and dynamic contrasts, none of them involve acceleration. Even at its most clamorous, Low doesn’t relinquish its preferred stately pace. Changes in mood are elicited mostly by shifts in timbre. Among the prominent tone colors are the two singers’s individual voices and their merged delivery, often in close harmony that recalls traditional Appalachian music.
Indeed, Low’s recent music could be termed “industrial folk.” Passages when Sparhawk’s guitar emulated a revving jet engine alternated with such fragile refrains as “I believe, I believe, I believe,” sung by Parker in “Always Up.”
Low is an expert at the rave-up, a song’s climactic breakdown into sheer, swaggering din. But where most bands use such crescendos as an ecstatic release, Low’s rowdiest outbursts were as emotionally constrained as its quietest moments. Abandon was not on the menu.
Instead of soaring, Sparhawk’s guitar tended to burrow into cyclical riffs. The effect of all the electronically treated racket was more meditative than aggressive. Low evidently intended to say with its music what Sparhawk did in his customary farewell benediction: “Peace be with you.”