Baltimore quartet Big Ups haven’t exactly delivered on the promise of their raw debut, ‘Eighteen Hours of Static’, which tended towards furious hardcore-inspired noise. Instead, they have expanded the scope of that promise, exploring more of the quiet, introspective sections that appeared all too scarcely on their previous record – such as on that album’s standout track ‘Wool’ – while retaining their angry edge.
This progression – and frontman Joe Galarraga‘s extensive use of a mumbling vocal style – has, predictably, led a number of critics to compare Big Ups to Louisville legends Slint. However, the only track where they fully commit to the hushed, tension-filled ‘Spiderland’ aesthetic is ‘Meet Where We Are’, with its intertwined guitar and bass figures, and nearly inaudible muttering.
A more appropriate comparison would be nineties Dischord alumnus Hoover, who also experimented with prominent melodic basslines, taut, understated guitars and a mumbled vocal delivery, but who still frequently exploded into full-throttle punk rage. The similarities between the two bands are particularly evident on Big Ups‘ excellent single ‘National Parks’, which Galarraga has said is written in dedication to his single mother: “She takes a walk/ to pass the time/ she walks alone,” he murmurs, before erupting, “BECAUSE SHE’S ALL ALONE, BECAUSE SHE’S ALL ALONE”.
In fact, the nineties output of Dischord Records is a good touchstone for ‘Before a Million Universes’; the pre-eminent DC punk label was home to a number of forward thinking bands dealing in the same style of complex post-hardcore Big Ups explores here. One way in which they do successfully emulate Slint is in the metallic heaviness of some of their louder sections, such as the closing riff of ‘Contain Myself’. In their noisier moments, they also resemble their Exploding in Sound stablemates Ex-Breathers, especially on the enjoyably shouty ‘Capitalized’: “Don’t sleep ’til it’s all been capitalized” hollers Galarraga over a raucous accompaniment.
The alternation between quiet and loud sections on ‘Before a Million Universes’ can be somewhat erratic. Dynamics change on a sixpence – not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes these changes seem arbitrary and can cause songs to lose their momentum. One or two songs give the sense of being a collection of fascinating parts rather than a singular musical piece, such as the uneven ‘Proximity Effect’.
In a way, this sums up the album as a whole. ‘Before a Million Universes’ may be a little all over the place in terms of its influences, grabbing elements from all corners of nineties post-hardcore. This is what happens, though, when a young band discovers thirty-plus years of American punk rock all at once. Big Ups don’t quite pull everything together to form a coherent style, but part of the charm of their sophomore effort is its messiness; it is, if nothing else, an album of intriguing contrasts and exciting potential.
‘Before a Million Universes’ is out now via Tough Love Records.
This Big Ups article was written by Joe Turner, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Stephen Butchard.