Upper Wilds
Photo: Keith Marlowe / Thrill Jockey

Upper Wilds Ponder the Enormity of the Cosmos with ‘Jupiter’

Alt-rock trio Upper Wilds’ energy and enthusiasm are seemingly endless, and like the universe, they take great pains to explore and chronicle on Jupiter.

Upper Wilds
Thrill Jockey
21 July 2023

When you think about it, equating the infinite, mind-boggling scope of the universe with riffs and breakneck rhythms makes a lot of sense. The classic guitar-bass-drums lineup has a palpable power, combining sludgy metal and punk songcraft, which seems perfect for exploring the vast unknown. Guitarist and vocalist Dan Friel, bassist Jason Binnick, and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher, the Brooklyn-based trio that comprises Upper Wilds, have been mining the universe for inspiration for their past three albums: Mars (2018), Venus (2021), and now Jupiter

Exploring the solar system, in this case, its largest planet, is an exciting perspective and allows, lyrically, for Friel to see our place in it. Also, It’s an excuse to pummel listeners with a combination of earth-shattering riffs and a musical intensity tempered by catchy hooks that nestle in the subconscious and will have even the most jaded metal fan humming them all day. Think Black Sabbath meets Hüsker Dü. 

Jupiter opens with “Greetings”, a brief track where Earth introduces itself in 55 languages before the chiming, distorted guitar of “Permanent Storm” sets in. Friel wastes no time pondering the hugeness of what’s beyond our immediate reach: “Out there tonight there’s a permanent storm,” he sings. “Howling, battered and worn / Screaming long after me / Out there right now there’s a diamond rain / Shining and insane / Things that you and I will never see.” Binnick and Ottenbacher lay down a ruthless rhythm, and the song’s solo is simply a wordless falsetto as if Friel is speechless with wonder. 

The distinct punk stylings of “Drifter” signals a band with endless energy reserves, going for broke as Friel ponders the excitement and imminent danger in space exploration: “We’ll drift apart to shores unknown / No signals, no directions home.” As Friel’s manic, melodic shredding is slathered across the insistent bass and drums, you can practically smell the sweat of a tiny, packed club. This is tempered by the relatively sedate, but no less loud, musical landscape of the majestic “Slow Centuries”, a tribute to Julio Mora and Waldramina Quinteros, the oldest married couple on Earth. Friel sees their towering relationship as an indication of the power of love and how it can overshadow the ages. Katie Eastburn (KATIEE) and Jeff Tobias (Sunwatchers) flesh out the track with guest vocals, adding texture to the existing trio format. 

Continuing the theme of earthly extremes and superlatives, “10’9” is a tribute to the tallest recorded person on our planet. Even someone that tall is nothing compared to the vast size of what is on Jupiter and elsewhere in the solar system. Still, Friel, Binnick, and Ottenbacher do their best to rise to the occasion, combining riffs, elegance, and wonder. While the universe is engaged in, as Friel sang earlier, a “permanent storm”, the subject of this song “stares down, at a world too small / Short life on the longest legs, can’t afford to fall.” He continues: “But they could see you from a million miles away / Towering over the open plane / Still growing ’til the end of the line / Carried in a coffin, ten foot nine.” Friel’s lyrics aren’t just companion pieces to the chugging, energetic riffs; they’re fascinating short stories, a Ray Bradbury landscape that bolsters the pummeling tunes with intelligence and wit.

Jupiter also finds room for other songwriting perspectives, particularly in the form of a fitting, well-chosen cover: Hüsker Dü’s “Books About UFOs” works well within the record’s lyrical subject matter, as the garage shuffle of the music combines with the lyrics that describe a young girl’s fascination with the unknown. The trio understand the punk nuances of the group they’re covering, resulting in a cover that does what it’s supposed to: pay faithful tribute but also put its unique stamp on the song. Tobias’ gleeful screeching saxophone solo is the cherry on top. 

Through 11 songs, wide-eyed wonder, and riffs for days, Jupiter never misses a beat or takes a wrong step. Closing the album with a fuzzy, low-key instrumental, “Cerberrat”, they seem to ponder the ten previous tracks with exhausted satisfaction. If it’s a cool-down period, they’ve earned it. Upper Wilds’ energy and enthusiasm are seemingly endless, and like the universe, they take great pains to explore and chronicle. 

RATING 9 / 10