Mars by Upper Wilds

Release date: October 19, 2018
Label: Thrill Jockey

On their second album Mars Upper Wilds blast off into the future looking to colonise the red planet and find it populated with whistling, shape-shifting earworms. If you’ve had enough of the dark and cold (outdoors, in the world in general, in your lonely wretched heart) this is some swaggering aural uplift type business to make you walk taller and fill your lungs with, hell, maybe even punch, the crisp autumn air. Escapism for sure, even optimism or something quite like it can be found here. Upper Wilds bend together frayed elements of hardcore and 90’s alt-rock to hot wire their sonic spaceship, swapping out aggression and negativity for a thick warm blanket of fuzz soaked melodies.

A bleeping intergalactic signal opens ‘Dead Mall’ launching us into the skies on driving guitars and huge thumping drums. It’s a big sound, screaming forwards at escape velocity. The sort of thing you can tell is really loud even when it’s playing at low volumes. Blown out and spacious, they make a fantastic noise. Upper Wilds’ main man Dan Friel used to make solo records full of wonky instrumentals fizzing out of cheap overdriven synths. They were lo-fi diy wonders, bright and shaking and visionary. I love those records but somehow the first Upper Wilds album kind of passed me by. Made by Friel on his own with the intention of forming a band to perform it Guitar Module 2017 now seems an obviously transitional record. Since bonded and battle hardened on stage Upper Wilds have become a power trio with a clearer focus and more confident sound.

The other big shift in approach is that Mars has no synths on it. All the stuff that sounds like synths is Friel singing through a combination of effects pedals. It’s tempting to think this accounts for the immediacy of the melodies running through the album but to be honest he used to write stuff just like it for synths anyway. He has a way with simple and irresistible melody lines that have you wanting to sing along even though you can scarcely make out the words beneath the fuzz. Friel’s vocals are mostly mixed down and shouted although Katie Eastburn (Young People, KATIEE) joins him for a few numbers to quite lovely effect.

Among a number of other guests current Guided by Voices bassist Mark Shue joins the gang chorus on the title track and while the band don’t actually sound all that much like Guided by Voices they do share a similar nagging sense of lost pop masterpieces submerged in the distortion. Snatches of world beating tunes bleeding through the squalls of noise and weirdness. New single ‘Wine Flies’ is just such a killer, a stadium anthem on another planet. Apparently sung from the perspective of the first earthlings sent into space; a collection of wine flies and tortoises. Friel has written them something like their own ‘Born To Run’, the reckless thrill of adventure and escape shot through with doubt and loss.

While “most of the album is either about Mars or historical space anecdotes” its themes are mostly opaque, perhaps more conflicted than the music might suggest. Still, the title track does indeed find us conquering Mars, triumphantly declaring “We’ll make ourselves at home again/ And we’ll claim every inch as our own!” Yet somehow even this moment of conquest seems shaded with doubts about the wisdom of the whole project. Concerns that get louder on the closing ‘Ex Frontiers’ acknowledging that, as thrilling as the idea is, the eventual outcome is “these ex-frontiers, they all just look the same”. It’s the longest and noisiest thing on the album, pushing further on regardless into a wilder noise storm. We’re not sure about the destination then, but it’s a really fun ride.

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