Cloud Nothings channel classic ’90s rock, fails to deliver distinctive sound

Elijah Watson

Cloud Nothings would have fit in perfectly during the 1990s alternative rock scene. With their aggressive yet melodic guitar riffs and angry, half-sung, half-spoken vocals that are, at times, indecipherable, Cloud Nothings have a sense of nostalgia about them. From their debut album Turning On, to their latest release, Attack on Memory, the band has shown a knack for creating heavy riffs and catchy melodies.

Cloud Nothings, once a gritty, lo-fi band, has since become a full group since its inception in the basement of lead singer and guitarist Dylan Baldi’s home in 2009. Baldi, whose self-made, premature recordings made up Cloud Nothings’ first two releases, would soon find an underground following, foreshadowing the songwriter’s inevitable rise to indie rock popularity.

Now, Baldi is more refined: The days of recording in his basement are a thing of the past, and now, with the help of acclaimed Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini, his latest release, Attack on Memory, is an impressive work of memorable hooks and unrelenting energy.

Album opener “No Future/No Past,” sounds like the result of a non-stop In Utero listening party. An eerie discordance silently looms behind Baldi’s monotonous delivery — his voice half-singing, half-mumbling as the intensity grows with every guttural crescendo.

“Fall In” one of the album’s melodic gems, begins with soothing harmonies before being bombarded by punchy guitar riffs and explosive cymbals.

“Separation” is reminiscent of the old songs of At the Drive-In; it begins with an intimidating forcefulness that grows into a catastrophic ball of sound, keeping you on edge until the music dwindles into silence.

It is songs like these that show the band’s potential. Although they are reminiscent of groups that came before them, Cloud Nothings manages to create their own sound, retaining the distorted, gritty beginnings that first captivated listeners.

Where the band finds problems is in their lack of cohesiveness and reliance on repetition. Sometimes this repetition is beneficial: for example, “No Future/No Past” rides on the same chords for some time, but redeems itself with a barrage of crescendoing guitars and drums that add to the song’s mysterious atmosphere, the transitions heavy and powerful. At other times, it is completely detrimental. “Wasted Days,” an almost nine-minute epic, becomes a challenge to listen to after the four-minute mark. It fails to gain any momentum, and the lack of dynamics and cohesiveness between transitions make the song feel much longer than it is.

Unlike Sonic Youth, who could go on eight-minute long escapades that remain captivating from beginning to end, Cloud Nothings cannot do the same. Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” is definitive because, regardless of its seven-minute mark, the song ascends and descends flawlessly with intensity, each idea allowed to grow and expand before moving on. Unfortunately, “Wasted Days” does nothing like that. The ideas are there, but towards the end it becomes a sluggish journey that becomes difficult to get through.

Another issue is Baldi’s vocal delivery, which can also go both ways. The monotonous, screech-to-yelp-to-groan technique can be distracting at times. This happens in “No Sentiment,” where the lead singer’s raspy vocals result in an off-pitch delivery that takes away from the song. Baldi tries to emulate Kurt Cobain, only to sound like a dying animal. Ye, there are songs like “Cut You,” where Baldi’s delivery makes the song that much more enthralling. “I need something I can hurt,” Baldi sings desperately, the dissonance in his voice discomforting.

Attack on Memory is an impressive and noteworthy release from the group. The band presents itself with a level of confidence that distinguishes it from its 1990s counterparts. There is still room for improvement, but considering that the album retains those pop sensibilities and dread-filled melodic hooks that first introduced us to Cloud Nothings, there is plenty of good to be found here.