As a solo artist, Michael Vallera makes music that often luxuriates in stillness and quietude, which is kind of a funny thing because he doesn't really seem to sit still all that much. Over the last few years, the Chicago-based musician has made creeping, longform guitar drones under his own name, grayscale ambience with the percussionist Stephen Hess as Cleared, and minimal electronic compositions in another duo called Maar. Each of those three projects has already released an album in 2017, but soon he'll release a fourth—this time with his band Luggage, who'll release their second album in two years October 20 on Don Giovanni.
Luggage is sort of a strange thing in the context of Vallera's wider work, if only because it's actually pretty normal. The three-piece—which also includes Vallera's longtime friend, drummer Luca Cimarusti and his childhood pal bassist Michael John Grant—makes what could be called, at least nominally, rock songs. Vallera mumbles menacingly over the spartan drum parts and chiming guitar riffs that unspool delicately. They are shaped into chunks between two and four minutes long. There aren't really choruses, but fragments of melody will repeat, riffs will echo. Over email, Vallera confirms that this is sort of unusual for him.
"The last time I played in a band with this kind of format was probably over ten years ago," he says. "The design of the songs is incredibly simple, but we are really interested with the nuances of transitions, and how to introduce deliberate moments where things can deconstruct or become more consonant."
Three, their followup to last year's SUN, came together over the course of the last year—some tracks mutating over that whole timespan, some birthed in their sickly oozing forms in a single rehearsal. Though the songs are slow and plodding, and because having only three sets of hands means there aren't all that many moving parts, they find a way to push the structures into weird places. The title track, premiering here, is a six-minute bummer jam that feels kinda like getting stuck in quicksand. Post-punk conventions—brittle bass, prickly leads, foreboding drums—are stretched to almost painfully slow pacing.
Vallera croaks above distorted bass strums and dizzy leads that spin like time-lapse videos of cobwebs—you can't help but get bogged down in it. Part of its genius is undoubtedly due to the Vallera's—and the rest of the bands—fascination with more experimental music. "I don't consider myself a very gifted songwriter," Vallera explains. "But I do think I have an ear for crafting certain sounds on guitar and putting those into a context that can generate a distinct mood for the listener. Most of the other music I work on is highly textural and longform, and those instincts never really go away."
Like listening to Unwound or Bedhead—or any number of bands making achingly slow, and painfully gnarled rock music—the effect of sitting through Three is often an anxious and bleak one. Already monochromatic genre conventions are drained of life and color, left sitting lifeless and alone.
"A lot of people who have heard the material or seen us perform have definitely spoken about a bleak energy that saturates the project," Vallera says. "We joke a lot internally about that aspect of the band, but in all honesty the music just comes from our sensibilities as people. The title track specifically was just written about experiences I have had with insomnia, but using the form of the song to present a sort of photograph of what that state feels like."
This is the sort of record to reach for as the seasons change—when you start feeling the dull ache of winter's chill approaching both in the air and in your heart. So you know, it's perfect that it's coming out now and I can have it to cling to through the cold months. As with all of Vallera's music, it's a joy to get bummed out alongside him.
Listen to "Three" here in advance of the album's release October 20 on Don Giovanni.