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Upper Wilds - "Mars" | Album Review

upper wilds cover.jpg

by Huw Baines (@huwbaines)

There’s a song on Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade called “Chartered Trips”. Its monstrous melody is buffeted by the band’s ongoing desire to make as much noise as humanly possible, and its guitars are a morass. They slash and bite, stabbing wildly at the sugar coating laid on by Bob Mould’s vocals. Rather than sketch out blueprints to be followed, Hüsker Dü gleefully serve up a reminder of just how boring rock songs usually are.

For a band to play loud is largely an empty gesture. It’s held up as confrontational, or something that sets them apart, but the reality is that it’s often a sticking plaster for songs that are short on ideas and long on time. But last year Upper Wilds released Guitar Module 2017, an album full of unapologetically loud rock songs that teemed with life. 

What was remarkable about the collection wasn’t its adventurous spirit (though that was there) but how it made staple ingredients - concrete riffs, proper melodies and pounding percussive heft - feel visceral again. In 25 minutes, Upper Wilds drafted a mission statement that caused the safety first gruel we had been subsisting on to clag in the mouth. 

And now it’s apparently time to throw in a few more curveballs. Where the title of album one suggested insular experimentation, album two looks outwards at the solar system. Mars is about the colonization of the red planet, but it’s also in part a weary, dystopian treatise on human folly and failings. These colonies aren’t gleaming futurescapes, they’re globs of identikit chain stores similar to the ones that leech the life from cities the world over. “These ex-frontiers, they all just look the same,” Dan Friel sings.

Here Friel, who made his name with Brooklyn experimentalists Parts & Labor, is aided and abetted by bassist Zach Lehroff and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher, along with a supporting cast including KATIEE’s Katie Eastburn, whose vocals provide a wonderful melodic counterpoint on songs like “Hellcoder,” and punk auteur Jeff Rosenstock, among many others. All of them are listed on the album’s front cover, as though Upper Wilds are sticking a mission patch on Mars as a whole.

The band’s palette has also shifted away from synths to an embrace of vocal manipulation through the medium of guitar pedal. Friel’s distorted tones open the LP as “Dead Mall”’s morse code jabs emerge like a distant signal before coalescing into a soaring riff. The crushing weight of the rhythm section soon follows, with Friel’s disembodied voice squalling above the noise only to land another melodic blow in the instrumental middle eight. It’s fabulous stuff.

“Hellcoder” also thrives on this approach, but Eastburn’s performance is a deft swerve away from the bug-eyed maelstrom. For a while, at least, because by the two minute point Friel has retrieved his bag of tricks and upended it on the floor. Towards the end of the song competing voices leave a phrase hanging in the air: “Evil still feels real to me.” 

There are plenty of thrills and spills elsewhere - “Wine Flies,” a song about the first Earthbound entities sent into space, is a particular joy - but Upper Wilds always have the throttle under control. Like the best power trios, their foundations are solid and provide a great view of the fireworks bursting overhead.

This record drives home the euphoria of rock songs that make your pulse quicken once their hooks get under your skin. For all its otherworldly ambition, its greatest achievement hails from closer to home -- more Freehold Mall than Martian strip mall. They’ve got these guitars and they’ve learned how to make them talk.