Venus, the third album from Upper Wilds, was a bit off-putting at first glance. The cover is an abstract swirl of blue, teal, purple, and green circles, and every track is named “Love Song”. I had no idea what I was in for, but I was already skeptical. That skepticism faded away quickly once the record started. Venus is a glorious cacophony of guitar noise, pounding drums, fuzz bass, and big catchy hooks. It filters guitar heroics through punk energy, and it’s totally my jam.
“Love Song #1” kicks it off with a buzzing, melodic guitar riff from Dan Friel, the band’s creative force. Soon drummer Jeff Ottenbacher and bassist Jason Binnick join in, pushing the song into a higher gear. Through a thin cloud of vocal distortion, Friel bellows, singing lyrics that seem to be about what it’s like inside of a volcano. “Life at 800 degrees / But the cameras melt / The God of Love cheers.” The song pounds and pulses and drifts away from the main riff in the middle of the song. Then Friel abruptly returns to it, sans drums and bass, for an extended solo that lasts for nearly 40 seconds in a song that’s barely over three minutes long. It’s a hard-hitting start for the album, but the band has a lot more in store.
At times, Friel lets his vocal melodies drive the songs. “Love Song #3” has a catchy drumbeat with a bit of a groove to it and some crazy synths (or heavily processed guitar), but the refrain, “We are / New constellations / New constellations”, is the song’s most memorable bit. “Love Song #6” pushes the tempo even faster than most of the tracks on Venus, and Ottenbacher is getting a heck of a workout on his hi-hat cymbals. Its lyrics, about the melancholy of a cult couple left behind when Heaven’s Gate committed suicide, are poignant. That poignancy is a bit buried in the song’s noise and the record’s best sing-along chorus. When it hits the moment, Friel slows the pace just a bit and self-harmonizes, “We know how to be alone / We know how to be alone now.”
In other spots, it’s the guitar riff that’s king. “Love Song #7” opens with a simple earworm of a riff, which Friel then uses as his vocal melody throughout the song. There are extensions, like a soaring bridge and a solo with the guitar sounding like a kazoo. But it’s that main riff that serves as the bedrock for the track. Closer “Love Song #10” eschews vocals entirely and has more of a continuing melodic guitar lead than a recurring riff. It’s an interesting contrast to hear what Friel does when the guitar is the only source of melody, and there are no vocals to bounce off of.
There are only two moments on Venus when Upper Wilds truly slows things down. “Love Song #4” is a short, muted track that’s just a quiet vocal melody and guitar accompaniment. “#4” turns out to be a prologue to “Love Song #5”, though, as it’s essentially a run through the chorus of the latter. “#5” begins with a bit of guitar shredding, the entire band comes in, and when Friel starts singing, it’s the same chorus. That chorus is an interesting take on love. Its intent seems to be to remind us that nature doesn’t notice when two people fall for each other. “The sun won’t care if you fall in love / The void still stares if you fall in love.”
“Love Song #8”, then, is the record’s only true ballad, but it doesn’t lack energy. Friel’s vocal melody is bittersweet as he sings about a mirror world that makes no sense to those of us on the other side. The simple guitar arpeggios are tender and sweet for a change. And appropriately, the song ends with a backward run-through of the opening verse, emphasizing the mirror concept of the lyrics.
Even with the big hooks, all the noisy guitars and chaotic drumming could quickly wear out its welcome with the listener. Fortunately, Friel seems to have a good sense of this. Venus’ brevity, with ten tracks clocking in at only 31 minutes, is an asset. Upper Wilds bring shades of all sorts of noisy rock, including Dinosaur, Jr., Pixies, and even Lightning Bolt, into their sound. However, the way they balance melody with waves of distortion is exceptionally skillful. I was not expecting Venus to be one of my favorite albums of 2021 so far, but Upper Wilds more than won me over.