[27 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The template for soft verses and loud choruses is at least as old as the Pixies. At least. Of course, everyone from Nirvana and the thousands of bands that begat them have since used the formula to startling effect, but no one does it quite as unexpectedly as New York’s Big Ups. On their debut LP, Eighteen Hours of Static, the group, which can make quite a racket, can gradually fade on its verses, bringing the volume of the cacophony down to a mere whisper, before exploding in a maelstrom of shrieking amp feedback on the choruses. (Which is precisely what the band does on penultimate track, “Fresh Meat”.) It’s a startling effect, one that elevates this noisy, punky, post-hardcore band above much of that of their brethren. The outfit originally garnered comparisons to Descendants-style punk rock, but their palette now includes colours from the likes of bands fronted by Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye, if not the groups aforementioned at the start of this piece. And, yet, despite the borrowed influences, the band manages to sound fresh and daring in one nearly half-hour burst – silly band name be damned. In fact, a lot of the material on this album sort of reminds me a little bit, just a little bit, of Cloud Nothings’ searing Attack on Memory. But there’s more going on here than hero worship.
Much of the group’s angst in their material falls at the feet of frontman Joe Galarraga, who goes from a whisper to a scream on “TMI”. It’s a little funny – his spoken bit during the verses on single “Goes Black” had me reaching for Moe Berg of The Pursuit of Happiness comparisons, and the song definitely reminds me of that band’s big hit “I’m an Adult Now”. And, truthfully, Eighteen Hours of Static is an album born of the frustration of being an adult, from the emotionless nature of society (“TMI”) to the disposable nature of most products of the day (“Disposer”) to the ills of organized religion (“Atheist Self-Help”). While you can level the criticism that Big Ups doth complain a tad too much, you have to admit that the record is a fun blast of neo-hardcore punk meets grunge. The album feels a lot longer than it is, but that’s not meant to be denigration – it just goes to show how many twists and turns there are throughout the 11 songs to be found here. “Wool” starts off with a quasi-Modest Mouse soundalike guitar line and Galarraga’s lazy vocals, and then, precisely a minute from the end of the song, the tune turns into an outright thrash fest, bringing to mind the scream-o antics of a Minor Threat. It’s quite the curveball, and is an interesting highlight in that it is the album’s longest song, eclipsing the four-minute mark, when everything else around it is a bright and punchy two minutes or so.
What makes Eighteen Hours of Static so fun is its referencing of cultural touchstones: when Galarraga sings “Take out the trash” on “Disposer”, one can’t help but think of that first Replacements album. And there’s plenty of grist for the mill for anyone into the Touch and Go and Dischord record labels, as alluded to earlier. But the band is able to pull all of this together – old school punk, humour punk and searing hardcore – into an affecting blend. And, once again, it’s also fun to listen to Galarraga’s vocal hijinx: sometimes he seems like a lost Beastie Boy (and let’s not forget that that group started out as a punk outfit) and, at others, he sounds like Big Bird without his Ritalin dose. Throughout the course of the album, Galarraga buzzes and howls under the influence of whatever is bugging him, and it puts the disc on the precipice: it’s the sound of a band about to go over the edge, but is able to restrain itself for long enough to not go off the side of the cliff. But, if there is any failings to Eighteen Hours of Static, it is that by the time you get to the 11th song, “Fine Line”, the album just ends on a dime without offering the listener anything of a lead out. It’s as though the band is simply having too much fun throwing whatever temper tantrum they’ve been going off on to really care about things that may seem inconsequential but are actually important in the scope and sculpturing of an album. Namely, sequencing. There’s very little rhyme or reason to the record. It’s just there.
Still, that all said, there’s much to be taken by here. If it isn’t Galarraga’s spastic vocals, or the bands penchant to mix punk styles, there’s almost something here for everyone. At least, those of you who like this sort of thing. Though it’s an imperfect record, Eighteen Hours of Static seems more powerful on repeated listens, and really has a way of getting underneath your skin. Finding something new in the hardcore styles is something that is, well, hard to do, and that Big Ups manage to sound interesting is a testament to how they’ve developed their style from being something of a joke to something much more powerful and threatening. Mired in the political, Eighteen Hours of Static is still really more like 18 hours of fun. It’ll be interesting to watch this band develop and see what direction they might veer in next. Eighteen Hours of Static is that kind of album: forward looking as much as it stares deeply into the abyss of modern life. Who knew that looking into that deep dark hole was so entertaining? Just as entertaining, it turns out, of listening to a group using that well worn formula of soft loud soft to innovative effect.