Cloud Nothings are the sort of band that has been hyped forever but has yet to deliver on the promise of true brilliance. They’ve always been “on the cusp”, without ever fully reaching it. Each of their two previous full lengths has kept them at such a precipice, meaning they’re great enough to be highly regarded but never to the point where their name is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. It is with such continued propulsion that we arrive at the band’s third long player in 3 years, the aptly titled Attack on Memory. This time, we’re assured, things are different. Previously, the band has been very much a one-man show, with Dylan Baldi writing and crafting most of the songs on his own, and then having people back him up in the studio and live. In a sense, it was sort of a “hired hands” band. At this point though, Baldi seems to have reached a point where he’s comfortable with the guys he’s working with, and the new record is more of a collaborative effort than ever before. They also chose to bring in legendary producer Steve Albini, which according to some recent interviews with Baldi, may have been a bad decision. The guy apparently treated the recording process as his time to do anything but pay attention to the job at hand. Still, the album is somehow able to retain that Albini sheen (or is it a lack of sheen?), and makes for the most interesting and ultimately divisive Cloud Nothings records to date.
The title of the album, Attack on Memory, is supposed to be a challenge to the way you think about Cloud Nothings. If you’re familiar with their previous two albums, Turning On and Cloud Nothings, then you should be clearly familiar with the band’s lo-fi pop-punk pedigree. It’s been a bouncy and fun ride, even as the sound hones closer to Sum 41 and Blink 182 than it does Fugazi or The Wipers. The new album tries to shake off those comparisons and re-establish the band as something more visceral and hardcore. They almost completely succeed at this, save for a couple moments of relapse. One listen to opening track “No Future/No Past” and you’ll instantly understand the changes and hopefully embrace them with open arms. Baldi sings like a man possessed, and it’ll be amazing if he can perform that umpteen times on tour and still keep his voice intact. It genuinely feels like this was the sound he was aiming for all along. Yet if that doesn’t do much for you, perhaps the nearly 9 minutes of “Wasted Days” will. To my mind, the song stands as the new piece de resistance of Cloud Nothings, a juggernaut that chugs along and actively engages the listener with every waking moment, doing the exact opposite of what its title suggests. Just when you think it’s on the verge of outstaying its welcome, it gets harder, better and faster than ever, falling somewhere in the path between Sonic Youth and Bitch Magnet. Seriously, the band should use the song as a mission statement for future records it’s so impressive and certainly shows off the talents of all the band members beyond just a series of power chords.
Speaking of power chords, fans of the first two Cloud Nothings albums will find that tracks like “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” are much more up their alley, the former moreso than the latter. Both are fun and speedy doses of proto-punk excellence, and are probably the two most easily memorable songs on the entire album. The 3 minute instrumental “Separation” is kind of the gooey center of Attack on Memory, and its title too is very apt. With the absence of Baldi’s vocals, the weight of the song rests entirely on the sharp and heavy guitar/drum assault, which is more than effective as a statement of purpose going forwards: separate yourself from what you thought you knew about this band. And though Baldi screams, “No nostalgia!” on “No Sentiment”, the song itself actually carries the drudging feeling that you’ve heard it somewhere before. That’s not to say the song is unoriginal, not by a long shot, but rather evokes the goodness of a Sunny Day Real Estate or even Slint, in glorious fashion. You can practically hear Baldi sneering behind the microphone, and there’s a certain kickass quality to that.
In spite of everything, Attack on Memory sort of loses steam in its final two tracks. Both feel like noble efforts to keep the same sort of spirit alive from all that came before it, but they’re a little more emotionally disconnected and drag in spite of their decent tempos. Baldi’s well-written lyrics remain intact, but his voice doesn’t reflect what he’s throwing out there. “It’ll never get old,” he sings on “Our Plans”, ironically sounding like somebody that’s pretty bored. You’d hope that wasn’t the case, particularly as the album is only 8 tracks total, with nothing except for “Wasted Days” crossing the 5-minute mark. In such cases it’d be nice if everything was as explosive as dynamite. Still, there’s so much quality over the duration of this album you’d be wrong to call it a misstep for the band. If anything, this should strengthen their resolve and push them even further in the right direction for the future. Is this finally the record that pushes Cloud Nothings into a new league of hyped bands that finally make good on their promise? It stands to reason that yes, this is finally their time. That said, why am I still thinking they’re still destined for even bigger, even better things?