Album Reviews

Big Ups – Before A Million Universes


Of all the notions one can fling at post-hardcore, the much maligned and misattributed genre, it does have one undeniable strength: tension. The key songs in the genre’s oeuvre are not built around a typical rock structure of verse-chorus-verse, but rather on a more fluid, almost progressive structure that emphasizes the disquiet over all else. It’s best envisioned like a constantly tightening torture rack, constantly ratcheting the tension, keeping the listener in this state of unease and the brink of real discomfort before discharging in the most cathartic manner possible. It’s one of punk’s hydra heads taken to its logical endpoint as the amplitude between peaks and troughs of noise and silence gets larger and larger and is compelling like few other styles, commanding a certain level of constant engagement from the listener: you can’t listen to Nation of Ulysses passively for example. As by nature it’s designed to be confrontational, being able to write pieces that operate within this model yet are still enthralling requires a huge talent; any idiot can hammer on a discordant chord for three minutes, but it takes someone like to David Pajo to take it the next level. This is why Before A Million Universes, the second album by New York’s Big Ups, is so engrossing. It pushes the listener to the brink with such a confidence and power that impossible to stop listening and while it may owe too much to what has come before, it stands as one of the more engrossing records of the year.

At no point on the album does it feel like the band are uncertain in who they are and what they intend to do; they’re a post-hardcore group and they’re going to kick your ass and wear it like a hat. The experience begins with the propulsive ‘Contain Myself’, a track kick started by beautiful two not harmonic riff and wall-of-noise break, sets the tone for the whole record very neatly. There will be loud louds and quiet quiets, other than that all structure is kept close to band’s chest, forcing the listener to continue to discover anymore. Having been unencumbered from the rules of conventional songwriting the band can play much more with atmosphere and texture and finding new ways to explore the darkness that surrounds them. Consider the mid-album ‘Meet Where We Are’ which this meandering sensibility that rather being fatty or lazy feels genuinely ominous as it jaggedly transitions between these creeping, slinking central riffs and these half time juggernaut hits or ‘Knight’ which has this Sabbath like fuzz that it punctuates these muted Brian McMahan vocals. It’s the same kind of unsettling energy that Jawbox, Enablers or Slint have down to a tee.

But unfortunately, therein lies the main problem with the record, it owes far too much to past masters of the genre, most obviously Slint. The influence of Spiderland is felt on every single song on this album; be the vocals that oscillate between spoken word and guttural howls, the unique distortion tone or that trademark use of harmonics, Big Ups have shamelessly pilfered from that well. ‘So Much You’, for example, has an almost embarrassing amount of ‘Good Morning, Captain’ within its DNA, not only copying its music but also directly taking its structure too. Yet the strange thing is, though, that this is less of a problem than it should be. While they have taken so much and their identity is still completely defined by another group, they’ve used the framework that others have out in such an effective manner that you have to commend them. ‘So Much You’, while it is a ‘Good Morning, Captain’ pastiche, it’s a fantastic reinterpretation of that song.

Crucially the album is consistently hypnotic and while there is a very clear absence of unique identity, there is a real promise of something truly special coming them in the not too distant future. For now, we have a Spiderland clone, but at least, it’s a bloody great one. Will Murphy