Retribution Gospel Choir's third full-length album obscures the talents of its creators. In 20 years with Low, singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk has displayed enviable finesse and resourcefulness as a guitarist and devastating empathy as a songwriter. In shepherding Low between delicate silences and scabrous noise, he's proven that the much-abused term "dynamics" still means something.
Sparhawk's abilities translate in Retribution Gospel Choir's live sets as he pursues noisy transcendence with bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard. On 2010's 2, the band begin "Electric Guitar" as a gentle song about a burnt-out musician and gradually spin it into a suspenseful whirl of tightly controlled guitar noise. But 3 isn't much concerned with that kind of songwriting.
The problem with 3 isn't that it's made up of two extended tracks with lots of space for improvisation. The band's live sets often include lengthy instrumental tangents, in which Sparhawk uses reverb, loops and delay to create sounds that fall somewhere between Crazy Horse jams and Lee "Scratch" Perry productions. Sparhawk's masterful layering and Pollard's brutal yet graceful drumming can keep things interesting for quite a long time. But it helps when the musicians build some quiet into these long passages and precede them with concise hard-rock songs. On 3, the freakouts stand alone.
"Can't Walk Out" stays at about the same level of volume and sonic density for 20 minutes. Early on, the track fills up with roaring guitar and merely alternates between "loud" and "slightly louder." It's hard to savor what Sparhawk's doing with shuddering reverb and streaks of high-pitched melody. On the bright side, Pollard's swinging cymbals and constant, explosive fills nearly compensate for the track's lack of direction.
"Seven" uses a gentler approach and an actual song structure but has the same problem as "Can't Walk Out": There's very little dynamic contrast. Guest Nels Cline's guitar leads hover above Sparhawk's distorted blur, but even Cline's fluttering, pretty phrasing begins to repeat itself, melding with the general murk. Retribution Gospel Choir are a consistently thrilling live band, but on 3 they trap themselves within songs that aren't completely realized.