The phrase "side project" often makes music fans cringe. Not only does a side project tend to spell hiatus — or even a break-up — for its members' main band, but it also often signals a lesser retread of a group's glory days, or perhaps an ill-advised departure from an artist's signature sound. It's rare to find a side project that strays from the earlier band's style while yielding something just as good. That's what makes Retribution Gospel Choir so remarkable.
Retribution Gospel Choir grew out of the iconic "slowcore" band Low, but the newer group's sound has little in common with Low's slow, gently morose rock. Both bands are haunted by raw-nerve emotion, but the Choir channels a different kind of energy. Where a Low song might be an atmospheric slow-burner, a Retribution Gospel Choir track is more likely to be an amps-to-11 rush of rock intensity.
Singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk is the driving creative force behind both groups, and he uses Retribution Gospel Choir as the yang to Low's yin. For someone who cut his teeth fronting a band that sounds like a cat's footsteps, he adapts his chops shockingly well to a style more akin to a freight train.
The trio, which also includes drummer Eric Pollard and Low bassist Steve Garrington, stopped by The Current's studios in St. Paul, Minn., this winter, and I was struck by how its visceral sound is colored with all kinds of rhythmic and melodic nuances. I guess that's what happens — or at least what should happen — when talented and accomplished musicians try on a new style.