Although different in form and color, the two albums released by Lotto at once have much in common: darkness and uncertainty, painted in a contemplative, striking way.
“Always LOLing at silly ‘rock is dead’ sods,” – wrote John Doran, editor-in-chief of The Quietus a year ago, after which he listed bands such as Horse Lords, My Disco, Divide & Dissolve, Tanz Mein Herz, Mdou Moctar and Lotto, among others. Indeed – they take the guitar as their starting point, but de facto, with ‘rock’ itself as an aesthetic or cliché, they don’t have much in common (as I discussed with Horse Lords). That’s why using the term ‘guitar-based’ is more appropriate, as I wrote about in Czas Kultury some time ago.
Lotto is a classic rock trio in terms of a line-up: electric guitar, bass, drums. So much so that there is neither rock here nor even thinking in a “guitar” way either. To the list mentioned above, I would add the Nissenenmondai, who, like Lotto, can be challenging to place, but both formations are pretty close in their thinking about and construction of music.
The trio, composed of musicians with different paths but highly open and expansive pedigrees, have been reducing their sound from the beginning – from the desert Ask the Dust, the dark and suspenseful Elite Feline, or the sweltering VV. But they also flounder, strutting around in a constructed aesthetic, an elaborate language that – today, it would seem unthinkable – earned them first place in the 2016 ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, the most prominent Polish daily newspaper.
They are back with two albums. They recorded the first, Axolotl, in the autumn of 2021, close to the directions outlined by the electronic “Pix”. Six months later, on a hot May, they played a concert at Warsaw’s club Spatif, which resulted in an album at the opposite pole. Summer is strictly acoustic, closer to the hazy and slowed-down Hours After album atmosphere. Two albums released at once, in this case, shouldn’t come as a surprise because genre-wise, the band is so high-profile that it can afford it while at the same time being so underground that it avoids the norms of the market by a wide margin, just like the norms of stylistic attachment.
Summer sounds like the band’s music has slowed down to date. Instead of rapid rhythmic cascades, it plays twice as long, ceding the sounds, which feels great on ‘Oranges’. The trio plays as if they are about to stop, slow to a halt, letting out individual instrumental sounds, creating contemplative, punctuated intrusions that resonate in the silence of the Kana Theatre in Szczecin, where the album was completed. Summer has a mood of suspense on that evening when the heat is so giving that you have no strength left for anything but slicing through the thick air with an axe. The immobile landscape, the anticipation of the evening, sometimes the track opens with the sound of a single instrument, a guitar, steadily introducing a sultry atmosphere (‘Asking’). I am reminded of Edward Hooper’s static paintings: realistic, painfully authentic but simultaneously unreal, in a world where the characters statically contemplate the reality they find, looking at it behind glass.
Łukasz Rychlicki, who tames the guitar in many line-ups, plays with a bit of blues verve, sometimes steadily weaving patterns, sometimes slightly drifting away from a distinct structure (‘Situation’). Majkowski and Szpura in the background strain the rhythm, but – as in the ‘Situation’ mentioned earlier – the drummer paints metallic afterimages in the background. The band loses itself in the sound; it is not the musical energy and this guitar ethos but the sonic escapism that seems most relevant here. Mike Majkowski, whose double bass is sonically the most hidden, also plays a part in this; he boosts the band’s sound but does not pull forward, creates a second bottom, and adds darkness to the songs. These seemingly light and subdued yet carry a heavy everydayness, a density of the mundane.
When I received Summer, I listened to it repeatedly – I had trouble suddenly switching to Axolotl, a significantly different album: electronic, dense, and intense. I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the sounds, the lack of space, the condensation of the material. On the other hand, the bass is immediately palpable – in ‘Selected Letters’, it emerges in Moog sounds in the foreground, interspersed with Szpura’s pad playing, resonating to the very end. But that’s not to say that Lotto doesn’t play contemplative music; it’s trance-like, a lavalier way of navigating the sonic mesh of experimentation. ‘Every Dance’ is reminiscent of the dark tropicality of Sun Araw’s Heavy Deeds days, not only when Szpura is playing steadily on the pads but also when there is a mysterious organ part and hooting in the background.
Something bordering on the soundtrack to ‘Apocalypse Time’ and The Bug’s London Zoo is born from this. On Elite Eline, Lotto’s music has been filtered through the production shtick of 1988, with ‘Animal Time’ featuring reminiscent of the producer. The track has a dense, electronic vibe punctuated by quasi-harmonica playing, emerging over a bass-noise background. Here, Rychlicki plays unexpectedly out of the blue against a backdrop of steady beat plays. But then it gets heavier in the ‘Compact Mirror’ or ‘Dogs in Distance’ you can easily find grime music inspirations – in the former, creaky variations played by Emil Pietrzyk on shakuhachi emerge against a background of hi-hat drums. There’s no guitar here, no bass; the band sounds like a group of producers spinning noise fused with bass on the edge of dub hangs, closer to the club floors of London clubs.
If guests appear, they cover themselves vigilantly (‘South of the Sun’), sometimes sounding like a spiritualistic transformation (‘Coda’) so that the recordings are flooded with vapors of unease. With that said, the band does not lose its character. Paradoxically, the darkness and uncertainty are the same here as in Summer but painted with a different set: a slowed-down band of beats from the machine instead of strained hi-hat beats, oriental elements in ‘Room’ or a processed synth motif in ‘Selected Letters’. The music moves towards total decay, not necessarily rhythmic decay as in ‘Pitch’, production-wise fine-tuned by Szpura.
If once Lotto played compactly, now they are developing their vision of open form, a structure prone to uneven intervals, built horizontally rather than vertically. At the same time, they have always been more cohesive and fascinating in design, texture, drama, and sound, but they have also diverged so much from their musical path.