It's been seven years since the last proper Dirty Three album, and that's a lot of time for this inventive trio to come up with some new ideas. And, perhaps because of all that time, a funny thing happens at the start of Toward the Low Sun. All the ideas come out, all the sounds, all at once.
Opener "Furnace Skies" is an onslaught of sound, a clustered up mix of circular bass riffs, skronking organ, and Jim White doing his best to clang and rattle on the drums without ever quite establishing a beat. It's a strange avant-jazz freak out, some version of late Coltrane filtered through math rock. The next tune "Sometimes I Forget You've Gone" is a spacier, more subdued version of same. Pianos plink out light riffs and bang out chords, while Mick Turner's guitar wanders around trying to find its footing. It's the smoke left after the fire of "Furnace Skies," but it is still in a rush, still trying to get it all out at once.
It's a perculiar start for a band so familiar with nuance and texture -- hell, violinist Warren Ellis has made plenty of brilliant film scores, and Turner and White know their way around all kinds of bizarre sounds themselves. It's also a curious turn from the softer vignettes of 2005's Cinder. These songs announce the trio's return with authority, but it's the rest of the album that is the real prize here. The latter songs sound both like boilerplate Dirty Three and a subtle but worthwhile variation on what you've already heard. Which is to say it sounds like a Dirty Three record, and they're great.
"Moon on the Land" is a groaning interplay between Ellis's scraping violin and some buzzing acoustic work by Turner, while White actually holds onto a basic shuffle. "Rising Blow" is a more hot-blooded track, one that's filled with Taylor's ringing chords and Ellis in full-on mad genius mode, and the song works to a crashing conclusion every bit as unruly as the first two tracks. The thing is, here, it sounds propulsive and exciting, it doesn't force its pace, it builds an inertia and earns that noise.
Toward the Low Sun, though, ends up succeeding mostly on its more bittersweet moments. "Rain Song" is as plainly beautiful as the band can bid, with Turner faintly plucking his guitar and White's cymbals pattering away while Ellis executes another impressive vamp on his violin. "Ashen Snow," with its orchestral size and softer textures, may be the best song here, and the most surprising. The ragged edge that always lays on the outskirts of their sound is held mostly at bay here, and even when the song seems to build to crescendo, it retreats to fragile piano notes.
These are the moments that evoke the band's finest work, and show the new tricks they've learned in the last seven years. For all the noise and bluster they kick up to start off the record, Toward the Low Sun is at its best when it's an unassuming return, when the beauty and power of the songs sneak up on us. They may startle you with those first sounds, but the ones that keep you around don't have to shout to get your attention.