(photo: Shawn Brackbill)
For a group that so reverently appropriates early-’90s indie rock classics, one would think that LVL UP‘s unusual band name would be rooted in a similarly deep appreciation for that era’s video games. Unfortunately for old-school Nintendo geeks, that’s not the case — the four-piece New York band say their moniker is not some sort of shout-out to Mario Brothers or Duck Hunt.
“I’m sad to say, but our band name has no good back story,” said Mike Caridi, guitarist/vocalist for LVL UP and one of the band’s three primary songwriters. “In fact, I don’t think any of us like our name anymore, but it’s too late to change it.”
The group’s vowel-less signature is getting increasingly more attention as of late, courtesy of their latest album Return to Love, which was released on venerable indie label Sub Pop Records on September 23. On October 20 and 21, the band will play two sold-out shows opening for Bear vs. Shark at Bottom of the Hill.
Return to Love takes all the endearing qualities of the band’s criminally overlooked 2014 album, Hoodwink’d, and expands them in a manner fitting for an evolving young group. Return to Love opener “Hidden Driver,” is an explosive fuzz-folk masterpiece that would fit perfectly on Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album, On Avery Island. Propelled by a kitchen-sink combination of hazy drums, guitars and bass, vocalist Dave Benton breathes out a torpid, unhurried tale of Karmic questioning, asking what role a higher deity plays in determining fate.
“Hidden Driver” is a prime example of how the band took their signature sound and swelled it beyond their past margins. Hoodwink’d was a flawless mashup of distorted pop nuggets, with the band distilling Pavement, Built to Spill, and The Microphones into palatable three-minute tunes. Everything on Return to Love just feels a little bigger and longer, with added lyrical and sonic depth.
“Pain” sees the band channeling the guitar dramatics of J. Mascis and Doug Martsch in a way they’ve never done before, “Five Men on the Ridge,” is a towering shoegaze number in the vein of My Bloody Valentine, and album closer “Naked in the River of the Creator” (a seven-minute epic) starts out with a droning, Spiritualized-imbued opening before devolving into a dystopian, sludgerock outro. Every song feels outsized, as if they’re bleeding out aural droplets from the edge of your speakers.
The album is a startlingly ambitious undertaking for the young group, which formed just five years ago while the four members were attending college at the State University of New York at Purchase. Caridi attributed some of the band’s panoramic blueprint to the newfound resources made available at Sub Pop, but he said the majority of the songs were fleshed out before the group signed with the Seattle-based label.
“We had the idea of this album pretty much mapped out, but Sub Pop allowed us to get into the studio and take the time to make it sound exactly the way we wanted it,” said Caridi.
Aside from having an unassailable ear for catchy and quirky tunes, LVL UP real’s strength lies in its array of diverse, talented songwriters. Belton and bassist Nick Corbo share similar vocal inflections — drawly, baritone deliveries — and both have an affinity for lyrics laden with existential, big-picture questions. Caridi’s voice is of a lighter affectation, and his narratives delve more directly into earthly troubles. “Pain” is a particularly harrowing effort from Caridi, as he seeks to comfort a friend who has been sexually assaulted while casting vitriol at her attacker. The song closes ominously, with Caridi declaiming, “I hope you’re cold / I hope you grow old / And never find love.”
The whole album is filled with these astonishingly profound flourishes, with each songwriter adding a unique dimension to the LVL UP sound. Despite having three talented tunesmiths, the band says that there are rarely arguments about how much each contributes to an album. “In a lot of ways, our setup creates this low-pressure environment, because no one person has to take all the creative responsibility,” said LVL UP drummer Greg Rutkin, the only member in the group who doesn’t write songs. “No one has a real ego in this group, and each person has a different approach. I think it just works for us.”
For fans excited about the evolution of the band, the future is bright. The group’s members considered abandoning the project at times to focus on their studies and burgeoning careers, but after signing with Sub Pop, they’re fully immersed in the LVL UP endeavor.
“These are conversations that come up a lot as we get further along with the band,” said Rutkin. “It’s always been small steps for us. But once we signed with Sub Pop, we all said that we’re committed to LVL UP and we’re looking forward to seeing where this takes us.”