Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Spirit Was

The Best of December 2018: Songs, Music Videos, and Records

Only a few days have passed since we turned to a new calendar year and everyone’s looking ahead to resolutions. While that’s a natural way to progress, sometimes it’s worth casting a glance back, especially when the recent past was so fruitful. In all three of the major release categories (songs, music videos, and full streams), there were gems unearthed throughout December. This post is one last look at a very specific slice of 2018 before this site catches up to everyone else and reveals its picks for Music Video, Song, and Album of the Year. In honor of a recent series of tweets from Small Albums, all of the reviews below will be two sentences or less. A few of the selections below might even make an appearance. Hedge your bets on which by exploring all the offerings below.

SONGS

1. Very Jazzed – Get A Job

A tongue-in-cheek post-punk rambler that’s as defiantly joyous as it is self-deprecating. “Get A Job” finds Very Jazzed in an immediate, accessible mode that suits them perfectly.

2. Guided By Voices – My Angel

One of the most dependable acts of the last few decades keeps surging forward with “My Angel”. A characteristically brief burst of energy, melody, and understanding from Guided By Voices.

3. Tørsö – Grab A Shovel

“Grab A Shovel” more than shows why Tørsö have become a revered emerging force on the DIY hardcore circuit. Gnarled, snarling, and unforgiving, it’s a monster of a track from an act worth following.

4. The Gentleman Losers – Make We Here Our Campfire

The Gentleman Losers crafted an enigmatic beauty in their recent Make We Here Our Campfire, a record headlined by its spellbinding title track. Melancholic and intuitive, “Make We Here Our Campfire” grips the senses like a vice, pulling the listener in until the very end.

MUSIC VIDEOS

1. Eerie Wanda – Sleepy Eyes

A hybrid clip for Eerie Wanda’s “Sleepy Eyes” serves as a perfect complement to the song. Part lyric video, part traditional footage, “Sleep Eyes” takes a simple concept and guides it to memorability.

2. Amos Pitsch – Piece of the Season

Tenement and DUSK‘s Amos Pitsch returns to the holiday spirit after 2017’s Lake Effect with “Piece of the Season”. Delivered in tandem with partner Julia Blair’s “Merry Christmas (To the Ones Who Are Lonely)“, “Piece of the Season” sees Pitsch surrounded by quintessential hallmarks of a Wisconsin winter (and delivers one of the year’s best shots in a quick-hitting sledding sequence).

3. Spirit Was – Golden Soul

LVL UP‘s dissolution may only be a few months in the past but its members are already going full bore with their new projects, including Nick Corbo’s Spirit Was. “Golden Soul” is a beautiful introduction-at-large to the project, the moody visuals perfectly suited to Corbo’s slow-burn songwriting mentality.

4. Noname – Blaxploitation

“Blaxploitation” is delivered not just as a music video but as a film, suggesting Noname‘s visual ambitions are just as bold as the ambition evidenced in the music. Playing off the monster movie film canon to supplement a pointed social commentary, “Blaxploitation” earns the film designation.

5. La Dispute – Rose Quartz / Fulton Street I

Every so often, something that’s so tethered to something deeply personal gives me reason to break this site’s “no first person” clause and in the case of La Dispute‘s gorgeously animated “Rose Quartz / Fulton Street I” it’s this: I was in a horrific car accident after a deer jumped a barricade on the interstate and left my partner’s previous car as a total loss. A scene, with some added symbolism, of an extremely similar nature is depicted throughout this clip and explores something that feels unflinching honest in its surreal, gently nightmarish portrayal.

6. Phoebe Bridgers – Killer

Phoebe Bridgers Stranger In the Alps is holding strong as one of the better records of the past few years and the sublime, crisp black-and-white clip for “Killer” serves as a stark reminder of its potency. A tender, engaging clip for a song worthy of this kind of treatment.

FULL STREAMS

1. Mister Goblin – Final Boy

While Two Inch Astronaut has taken a bow, Sam Woodring is still going strong, a fact evidenced by a sterling debut effort from the songwriter’s newest project, Mister Goblin.  Keeping Two Inch Astronaut’s core sensibilities intact but providing them a slightly lighter sheen, Woodring finds a joy in exploring some (mostly) untapped spaces and that joy translates into a rewarding listen.

2. pting – beep beep

beep beep stands out as a charming effort from pting pting, offering three tracks of punk-indebted slacker pop that are worth every revisit.

3. Strange Ranger – etc.

A project that’s been a site favorite for a few years keeps finding intriguing ways to evolve. etc. is a fascinating left turn for Strange Ranger but one that’s in keeping with their recent exploratory bent, finding them in a bed of acoustic warmth that still has room for the electronic-heavy collaborative closer.

4. Lrrr & Maxshh – Thank You, Lrrr, You’re Welcome Maxshh

Thank You, Lrrr, You’re Welcome Maxshh is an endearing split release from Lrrr and Maxshh, which finds the two projects squaring off, collaborating, and contributing a Frankie Cosmos cover for good measure. A mid-fi bedroom/basement pop triumph.

5. Laura Stevenson – The Mystic & The Master

One of today’s most underrated songwriters returns and offers two strong, heartfelt tracks of contemporary folk pop. Imbued with empathy and subtle artistry, “The Mystic & The Master” and “Maker of Things” are more than deserving of their place in Laura Stevenson‘s discography.

6. Spirit Was – Golden Soul

As stated above, though LVL UP’s gone, multi-instrumentalist Nick Corbo’s most certainly not. Golden Soul finds Corbo sinking deep into contemplation while clinging to a torch, ready to set everything ablaze at a moment’s notice.

7. Another Heaven – FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER

While FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER FOR EVER is a title destined to have people counting on their fingers, the songs it contains are more likely to make listeners feel a sense of awareness. Urgent, thoughtful, and nearly overwhelming, Another Heaven have released a behemoth of an EP that stands among 2018’s finest releases.

LVL UP – Orchard (Stream, Live Videos)

A note here, before things get too much further. I try to make it a habit to not write or use a first person perspective on this site and when I do make an exception, it’s to convey the personal connection I have to the material. LVL UP‘s goodbye note and their swan song might go beyond being just personal. Theirs was a band I loved fiercely, from the very moment my friend Sasha introduce me to them at her Chicago apartment. All it took was one live video for me to feel like I was being leveled; they were operating in a genre I loved but subverting it in a way that legitimately obliterated (and subsequently redefined) how I approached writing my own music.

From that point forward, I would listen to the band obsessively. I got to know their side projects, the bands they were in that preceded LVL UP, the bands they were forming. The first time I saw them was with Sasha again at Beat Kitchen in Chicago, where we all shared a meal with Mitski, who was touring alongside the band and in the early stages of becoming a legitimate powerhouse. Over the course of that day and getting to know the people in the band, there was a palpable kindness that was extended to me, operating without the knowledge that I was the one who labored over multiple pieces dissecting what made their music so distinct and so important.

They’d find out by the end of the night and respond in kind but by then, they’d already established themselves as the type of people who create their own families, housing them with empathy and affection. A few years later, I would find myself quite literally sleeping under the roof of their de facto home base, DBTS, during my brief stint living in New York. By that point, I’d already crowned Hoodwink‘d 2014’s Album of the Year and would be a year removed from giving Return to Love the same accolade.

It’s incredibly important to note here that those records didn’t receive those positions because LVL UP was kind to me; I had no idea that the members would become integral — if somewhat distant — parts of my life when Sasha hit play on that video. They earned those spots because their music always gave me a sense of belonging, which is exceedingly rare. I was fascinated by the collaboration, which seemed to establish an equal footing, and I was blown away by their articulation of a very specific sect of early adulthood.

Whether Nick, Dave, or Mike were expressing heartache, betrayal, wonderment, isolation, or warmth, the way the narratives took shape always found a way to hit me especially hard. It wasn’t just that the lyrics or instrumentation were impressive, there was an abundance of heart and humility that resonated with me to the point where my countless personal retreats into the worlds they conjured felt like a part of my identity.

Moving into DBTS for a short stretch only served to strengthen and accentuate things that I’d already learned; LVL UP wasn’t just a four person band. LVL UP was a family that extended beyond the confines of music. “They don’t love you like we do” wasn’t just a lyric, it was a way of living that’s spawned unforgettable moments for not just their friends but listeners the world over that found that same connection to their music that I held tight.

Considering every inch of those aspects of the band, their announcement a few short weeks ago and the release of “Orchard” have made the goodbye especially painful. Coming on the back of their most celebrated record (along with signing to Sub Pop), the band’s future seemed wide open. Everything seemed to be clicking, even as the trio of core songwriters dipped into their respective solo projects (Trace Mountains, Spirit Was, and The Glow) with an increased dedication while drummer Greg Rutkin found success in Cende, a band that was gone too soon.

It’s in those solo projects (and the various others that all four members have played pivotal roles) that there resides hope for what LVL UP can offer in the future. Each of their albums, 7″s, and odds and ends compilations encapsulates the kind of legacy that people will point to as a source of inspiration for years to come. “Orchard” is a worthy addition to that legacy and the most bittersweet moment of a discography that never shied away from challenging dichotomies.

Everyone gets a turn in front of the microphone one final time, sharing harmonies together with the knowledge that this will be their last time, imbuing the song with a sense of longing and finality. In that context, “Orchard” becomes devastating; it’s the end of an era that heralded innumerable arrivals, songs, and moments. There’s a palpable weight in the delivery, as if the members of LVL UP themselves were still struggling to come to terms with the decision to have one final outing before hanging up their banner for good.

Over that final three minutes and 48 seconds, the band lean into their interplay to incredible effect, pushing it to the forefront for a deeply felt goodbye. Fittingly, considering the circumstances, “Orchard” is the most melancholic moment of the band’s career, replete with elegiac, swirling organ lines cascading down onto reverb-laden vocals. The song’s kept at mid-tempo but still feels urgent, as if holding back from collapse; mirroring those of us who have struggled with this being the last new song we’ll likely ever hear from the band.

From a narrative perspective, “Orchard” seems to touch on a metaphor that applies to the history these four people have built together, from the ground up. An orchard turns out to be an apt metaphor as LVL UP waxes poetic on the nature of change; life and death being inextricably intertwined, one providing the inevitability of the other. Even through that wistful lens, there’s a sliver of hope in the allowance of rebirth. If “Orchard” truly winds up being the band’s parting gift to those who were fortunate enough to cross the path of their music, it’s an exquisite one.

All we can do now is hope that Nick Corbo, Greg Rutkin, Dave Benson, and Mike Caridi keep finding ways to keep the flames they stoked alive in some way or another. LVL UP’s dissolution may offer difficult routes to reconciliation, but the space it affords is lit with a rare kind of promise that will be a comfort in the ongoing rolling blackout of treasured NYC DIY institutions. Fortunately, the band’s not ready for a final goodbye quite yet and will be taking an extended bow on a farewell tour.

Read the band’s goodbye note and buy tickets for one of the farewell tour dates listed as soon as they become available.

“We have decided to retire this project. It has been an extremely rewarding journey beyond anything we could have ever realistically imagined,” LVL UP said in a statement. “The band began in a college dorm room in 2011 as a lighthearted recording project. We have since been lucky enough to tour nationally and internationally over the last seven years with the support of many lovely people, and will never be able to thank our friends, families, and loved ones enough for providing such warmth throughout this experience. Our deepest gratitude goes out to every label, band, and person who’s played a role in this wild ride.”

08/27 – Boston, MA @ Great Scott
08/28 – Montréal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz
08/29 – Toronto, ON @ The Garrison
08/30 – Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s
08/31 – Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen
09/01 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry
09/04 – Missoula, MN @ Union Ballroom
09/05 – Seattle, WA @ Barboza
09/06 – Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
09/08 – San Francisco, CA @ Cafe Du Nord
09/09 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
09/10 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
09/13 – Dallas, TX @ Three Links
09/14 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda
09/16 – Nashville, TN @ High Watt
09/17 – Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight
09/18 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
09/19 – Richmond, VA @ The Camel
09/20 – Washington, DC @ DC9
09/21 – Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
09/28 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom

Watch a collection of personally shot live videos and listen to “Orchard” below.

16 of ’16: The Best Songs of the Year

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Following suit with the two previous examples, the best songs of 2016 list will abandon the traditional numerical format in favor of a more open approach that concentrates on the best material of the year without offering too many individual designations. The majority of the songs featured on this list were under-represented on lists by far more visible publications (and a few that were fairly represented are listed below the main list as honorable mentions) and fall under the genres normally covered by this site. Of course, this list — just like any other — can’t claim to be truly representative but it does offer a decent encapsulation of 2016 releases that deserved to be celebrated.

An additional note: most of the embeds come from bandcamp, so songs will auto-play after the initial listen. This was intentional to ease the access to the records that can claim these songs and to more directly benefit the artists that brought them into the world.

Enjoy the list.

Mo Troper – Happy Birthday

One of the strongest debut records of last year was Mo Troper‘s Beloved, an entirely unexpected but wholly welcome powerpop masterpiece. While just about every song on Beloved was considered for this list, it seemed appropriate to go with “Happy Birthday” which set the tone for a fearsome record that deserved far more recognition.

Doe – Sincere

Some Things Last Longer Than You was a blistering statement from Doe, a band that had been steadily gaining momentum for years. It was a perfectly structured record that allowed its songs an equal amount of weight but “Sincere” still managed to emerge as a standout single. Fiery and full of conviction, it was one of 2016’s best moments.


Told Slant – Low Hymnal

Low Hymnal” was a song that I was fortunate enough to hear forming in its earliest stages but the finished product still managed to wind up as a transcendental experience. There’s genuine pain at the root of Told Slant‘s “Low Hymnal” that lends to the overwhelming weight of the song’s unforgettable final stanza. A gorgeous and moving masterwork.

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

In the title track for their career best, Human Performance, Parquet Courts hit an exhilarating new high point. “Human Performance” is a tightly-coiled and deeply felt examination of the human condition that finds the band stretching in new directions with a fearlessness that makes the song as gripping as it is immediate.

Yucky Duster – Gofer

A pitch-perfect pop song, Yucky Duster‘s “Gofer” became one of 2016’s most unexpected summer anthems. It’s a pure delight at every perfectly-navigated hairpin turn, serving up some of the most meticulously constructed guitar pop in recent memory. A perfect blend of style and substance, “Gofer” is a triumph from a band worth watching.

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)

While Pretty Years saw Cymbals Eat Guitars continue to evolve their sound, no moment of the record was more jaw-dropping than the towering “Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)“. An eye-opening display of formidable strength and untapped ferocity, the song saw the band perfecting just about every facet of their already-impressive songwriting.

LVL UP – Spirit Was

Pain” and “Hidden Driver” got a fair amount of attention from year-end lists but the most representative moment of LVL UP‘s Return To Love was the bittersweet “Spirit Was“, which also ranks as one of the band’s best. Vocalist/bassist Nick Corbo provided Return To Love its beating heart and “Spirit Was” marked the moment it completely opened.

Big Thief – Real Love

It takes a certain type of boldness to title a record Masterpiece but when that record features songs like “Real Love“, that title just seems apt. In some moments “Real Love” is breezy and open, while others finds Big Thief baring their fangs. Throw in one of the most effective guitar solos of the past few years and “Real Love” quietly emerges as a new classic.

Jawbreaker Reunion – Cosmos

Before hanging up their cables, Jawbreaker Reunion were kind enough to deliver one last album in haha and then what 😉, which lived up to the bands sterling track record. The best moment of a great record came via “Cosmos“, a gorgeous ballad examining serious topics that quickly transforms into a forceful reckoning. In short: it’s perfect.

Car Seat Headrest – The Ballad of the Costa Concordia

Likely the most celebrated record appearing on this list, Car Seat Headrest‘s Teens of Denial‘s most breathtaking moment was largely ignored by other outlets. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is a sprawling meditation on hopelessness that somehow finds a way to seamlessly work in a brief, heartrending cover of Dido’s “White Flag”. A genuine achievement.

Fred Thomas – Brickwall

Fred Thomas is making and releasing music at a relatively relentless rate, which is a trait that typically produces a lot of filler material. Thomas somehow keeps getting better, something that’s clearly evident in “Brickwall“, a characteristically acerbic slice-of-life send-up that highlights Changer, which will go down as one of 2017’s finest.

Cloud Nothings – Modern Act

Rarely does a band come across as progressive while revisiting their earlier sounds, yet “Modern Act” finds a way to fuse progression with refinement in its revisitations. A brilliant hybrid of virtually every stage of the band’s career “Modern Act” is both a victory lap and an engrossing look at Cloud Nothings‘ increasingly promising future.

Slothrust – Horseshoe Crab

Crockpot” was the kind of unforgettable song that could make a band’s career, that Slothrust has surpassed those dazzling heights so quickly is a staggering accomplishment. “Horseshoe Crab” is the kind of track that can stop people in their tracks. It’s a spellbinding song from a band unafraid to rip the bleeding heart out of their own chest.

Catbus – Fracas

A standalone release — and lone track — from a band that features Phyllis Ophelia and members of Patio, Catbus‘ “Fracas” is a riveting hybrid of post-punk and basement pop. The verses ensnare the listeners attention before the chorus blooms and casts an unbreakable spell. Exceedingly lovely and perfectly crafted, “Fracas” is an absolute gem.

John K. Samson – Virtute At Rest

No song in 2016 carried more emotional resonance than John K. Samson‘s devastating final chapter to the Virtute trilogy. Plaintive, painfully intimate, and tinged with a deeply damaged sense of hope, the song finds Virtute’s owner resurrecting the neglected cat to beg for forgiveness. Harrowing and unforgettable, “Virtute At Rest” was a knockout blow.

SONG OF THE YEAR

Jay Som – I Think You’re Alright

There’s a grace and elegance that’s identifiable even through the light damage that Jay Som applies to “I Think You’re Alright” that brings Sparklehorse to mind. Now, direct comparisons on this site are few and far between — especially in the case of such notable luminaries — but it’s next to impossible not to hear the ghost of Mark Linkous lovingly haunting every last second of “I Think You’re Alright”.

Melina Duterte, the mastermind behind the Jay Som project, has listed Sparklehorse as a major influence and the two share a kindred, empathetic spirit- something that shows in the delicate tenderness of “I Think You’re Alright” and maintains its convictions throughout the rest of Jay Som’s discography. While that discography is an enviable one, “I Think You’re Alright” remains its crown jewel, thanks to not only the song’s sublime instrumentation but a narrative that plays perfectly into the song’s soft lyricism.

All at once, uplifting and resigned, “I Think  You’re Alright” occupies a fascinating space. There’s a lot going on in “I Think You’re Alright”, from the subdued atmosphere to the way that instrumentation interacts in its final quarter. When it’s playing, though, none of that’s taken into account as “I Think You’re Alright” has the ability to envelop the listener in a very specific feeling, rendering it a unique (and uniquely moving) listen. Not just one of the finest of this year but of the past decade.

Nine more worth hearing:

PWR BTTM – Projection
Mitski – Your Best American Girl
Weaves – Coo Coo
Margaret Glaspy – You and I
Forth Wanderers – Slop
Bent Shapes – New Starts In Old Dominion
Eskimeaux – WTF
Tancred – Sell My Head
Young Jesus – Baked Goods

LVL UP – Return to Love (Album Review)

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A great week was all but capped off by a tantalizing array of new material, including streams from Dark Blue, Teksti-TV 666, Black Honey, Alien Boy, Teen Vice, Acrylics, and Itasca. Neaux held down the fort for the music video format while excellent full streams from the likes of Static Animal, Anthony Jay Sanders, and betty becky came to light. Dillo Milk’s tremendous second compilation, Dillo Milk 2, rounded things out in memorable fashion.

As enticing as it was to go into detail on any of those entries listed above, this post was always going to belong to LVL UP. When Heartbreaking Bravery first started, they were the ideal example of the type of band this space was designed to celebrate. A scrappy, frequently overlooked powerhouse that earned critical acclaim and adoration in certain circles, had strong communal values, a distinctly DIY ethos, and a knack for intelligent, intuitive songwriting. The fact that they were playing basement pop — the genre that would arguably come to define this site’s coverage — almost became secondary to those other characteristics.   

Less than a week and a half elapsed from the first post to be published on this site before LVL UP’s was printed. Even if that mention was only a tangential one, it was designed to posit the band as reference point for feature coverage. Before long, they became an intrinsic part of Heartbreaking Bravery’s allotted feature segments. Very few bands have appeared in that capacity at a greater volume of frequency than LVL UP have managed to attain over their past several releases.

Hoodwink’d
, their outstanding sophomore full-length, topped this site’s best albums of 2014 list. Three Songs, the quartet’s most recent short-form release, ranked highly in the best EP’s of 2015 list. “Hidden Driver“, “Spirit Was“, “Pain“, and “The Closing Door“, the four songs to tease the just-released Return to Love, all earned features on their own considerable merit. With that kind of rollout campaign, a full review of Return to Love became an inevitability. Predictably, the rest of the record somehow found a way to surpass what were once thought to be unreasonably high expectations.

“Hidden Driver”, Return to Love‘s incendiary opener, sounded like it was all but ready to hurtle itself into an untested abyss when it was first unveiled. It’s an explosive work and it sets up the noticeably more aggressive nature of Return to Love, which asks a lot bigger questions than its predecessors. From the outset, Return to Love grapples with non-traditional instances of love and spirituality, something the band discussed at length in Loren DiBlasi‘s revealing MTV profile piece that went up earlier today.

In that interview, guitarist/vocalist Dave Benton (who penned “Hidden Driver”) posited God as a feeling, rather than as an all-knowing omnipresence. So, when the unforgettable chorus of “Hidden Driver” hits, the meaning becomes slightly more clear. It’s the first instance of a slew of moments that litter Return to Love in which the band confront the spiritual realm with the kind of bold decisiveness that powers the record.

Blur“, one of two songs to be revised from Three Songs for Return to Love, increases the velocity of the momentum and allows Mike Caridi to take over for a moment. Characteristically riff-happy and tethered to an enviable pop sensibility, “Blur” scales back from the otherworldly concerns of “Hidden Driver” to examine the minutiae of a fractured relationship and its lingering effects.

Only two songs into the record and LVL UP have already struck a delicate balance of external and internal questioning, providing an early hint that Return to Love is a record that’s defined by a commitment to exploring their own curiosity. Complementing that theme is the renewed emphasis on keys, which prove to be immensely effective and elevate the record’s frequently subdued nature, especially as Return to Love explores new musical territory.

A great example of that exploration comes in the form of the record’s third track, which turns the spotlight back to Benton. “She Sustains Us” is one of Return to Love‘s more definitive moments as it opens up the band’s sound, considerably expands their musical boundaries, establishes new tendencies, and examines the ideas of love and spirituality from a singular perspective while remaining subversive in the way those topics are typically approached. Beautiful harmonies flitter in and out of “She Sustains Us” and continues the the band’s tradition of adding compelling touches of overt femininity in their work.

The ensuing quartet of tracks constitute Return to Love‘s beating heart and have all either been revealed as part of the record’s introductory campaign or have been staples of the band’s galvanizing live sets for a year or more. “Pain” — a critical part of that run of songs and one of the record’s many standouts — sees Mike Caridi getting off some cutting asides while still managing to invoke a small semblance of lightness. The narrative of “Blur” is unapologetic in its casual brutality, wishing nothing but the worst for a person who harmed a loved one. Somehow, the spry nature of the music surrounding those biting lyrics keep the sentiment from becoming overly malicious.

There’s always been an underlying humanism and empathy to LVL UP’s work, even at its most detached. “Spirit Was”, “The Closing Door”, and “Five Men On the Ridge” all reap the benefits of that genuine, open-hearted approach which continues to stand in contrast to so many otherwise similarly-minded acts. All of those songs also ably demonstrate LVL UP’s acutely-realized atmospheric design (the plinking piano figure of “Spirit Was” being a perfect example) and their newfound heaviness (when the band comes crashing in at full force towards the start of the redesigned “The Closing Door”, the sudden impact becomes ridiculously powerful).

Five Men on the Ridge“, easily one of Return to Love‘s heaviest numbers, transitions the record into its final run of tracks with an impressive mixture of grace and relentless intensity. It’s a song that’ll be new to just about everyone that hasn’t been fortunate enough to catch the band live but it takes on new life in the context of the record. One of bassist/vocalist Nick Corbo’s strongest contributions to date, the song finally infuses Return to Love‘s line of questioning with a well-earned sense of dread; there are likely some big questions that are better left unanswered.

Corbo immediately follows that jarring moment of bleakness with one of Return to Love‘s most meditative pieces, “Cut from the Vine”, which finds the songwriter returning to a characteristic theme: the distinctly human connection to nature. It’s something that Corbo’s explored on previous records and discussed semi-frequently in interviews (as well as casual conversation). While all of the past instances of this recurrent theme in Corbo’s songwriting have been engaging, “Cut from the Vine” is truly exceptional.

With the slow-burn of “Cut from the Vine”, the record’s final Caridi track — “I” — is positioned perfectly. Return to Love‘s penultimate number restores a sense of urgency and elevates its immediacy, recalling the band’s past work with enough panache and untethered momentum to rank as one of Return to Love‘s most exhilarating offerings. At a brisk two minutes (not counting the fascinating ambient epilogue that features drummer Greg Rutkin’s distorted ramblings about a beach), it’s the record’s shortest song and its sharpest kick, all but cementing Return to Love as one of 2016’s fiercest highlights.

All of that said — meaning every single paragraph of this feature review — nothing could’ve been adequate preparation for Return to Love‘s bruising, doom-leaning, chant-laden finale, “Naked In the River with the Creator”. Corbo takes the reigns once again and steers the focus back to nature, love, and spirituality in one fell swoop. “Naked in the River with the Creator” was one of three songs on Return to Love that was initiated by the excellent Song A Day for A Week series and its final form is astonishing.

Nearly seven and a half minutes in length, “Naked in the River with the Creator” suggests that Return to Love still hasn’t revealed the extent of the band’s ambitions. Opening with the slowest tempo of the record, somber vocals awash in a gently haunting organ figure, the effect is genuinely startling. Even more startling is when the bottom drops out and plunges the band into a quasi-nightmarish trip into a metal-informed trance that evokes a state of possession.

The latter half of “Naked in the River with the Creator”, with its repeated mantras of chants like the opening “white river, black water, gaining purpose, moving stronger, ash rising, bright father, dogs running the earth’s daughter” becomes both deeply disconcerting and oddly chilling. As directly as the band confronted spirituality throughout Return to Love, “Naked in the River with the Creator” all but exists on a different plane of existence. It’s a shocking departure from a band not typically known for taking risks and the dividends it pays are enormous, fully positioning LVL UP’s Sub Pop as not only a genre classic but as one of the legendary label’s best releases in years.

All told, Return to Love is a document of a band determined to continuously better themselves, a new career high, and a bona fide statement release from one of this generation’s most consistently exciting acts. It’s a series of sustained, connected grace notes that never wavers, even as it openly acknowledges it doesn’t have all of the answers. Not a single second of its run time is wasted and each of the songs are memorable for a wildly varying list of reasons. LVL UP aren’t the type of band to be dissuaded from taking action by a daunting challenge and Return to Love is an assured, steadfast piece of proof.

To put it as succinctly as possible: it’s a masterpiece.

Listen to Return to Love below and pick it up from Sub Pop here.

LVL UP – Spirit Was (Stream)

LVL UP II

The first two days of this week saw strong songs released from the following artists: Painted Zeros, Sneaks, Devon Welsh, Cheap Girls, Lilac Daze, Casper Skulls, Dweller on the Threshold, Idiot Genes, gobbinjr, Faux Ferocious, Halfsour, Pip Blom, Elephants, Split Single, Rose Hip, Weyes Blood, Thick, Cameron AG, Preoccupations, Oldermost, Tim Hecker, The Shacks, Swet Shop Boys, The Cradle, Gallery 47, Monomyth, Robot Princess, Pumarosa, COPY, decker., Slaughter Beach, Dog, and The Perennials, as well as a great Modern Lovers cover from Sunflower Bean. That’s an intense amount of genuinely exceptional material, which says a lot about the strength of this post’s featured track: LVL UP‘s “Spirit Was”.

Pain” and “Hidden Driver” have set an impressive early tone for LVL UP’s forthcoming Return to Love — an easy album of the year candidate — and now “Spirit Was” joins their ranks. From its opening seconds, it’s evident that “Spirit Was” would be foregoing the heaviness of “Pain” and the urgency of “Hidden Driver” in favor of the more dream-like qualities that have given previous tracks like “Proven Water Rites” a tremendous amount of impact, despite their more serene nature.

As was the case with “Proven Water Rites”, bassist Nick Corbo is at the helm of “Spirit Was”, suffusing the tune with a distinctive blend of weariness, downtrodden longing, and a glimmer of faith in the possibility that there’s more to life than struggle. Like a lot of Return to Love (which can be streamed upon pre-order), “Spirit Was” showcases a heavier, grunge-leaning side of LVL UP that they’d only shown glimpses of in their earlier works. There’s a genuinely intangible quality to this song that elevates it beyond being a good song and transforms it into something impossibly compelling.

Every single second of “Spirit Was” seems to have an incalculable depth of meaning and importance to its authors, going far deeper than just the narrative. LVL UP are playing as if the stakes are life or death and they’re hedging all of their bets on survival, at all costs. From the very welcome addition — and surprising prominence — of piano flourishes to the empathetic rhythm section work to the intuitive guitar interplay, there’s not a false move to be found. It’s an astonishing moment of poise from a band that’s operating at the peak of their powers, paying tribute to their past while not taking their eyes off of the future.

By its end, “Spirit Was” serves as an incredibly assured testament to the artistic prowess that the band’s attained over several years of evolving their craft.  None of them have ever sounded more impressive than they do on Return to Love both in an individual capacity and as a unit. “Spirit Was” is a perfect example of that progress and a cogent argument for their tenacious commitment to artistic growth. Subdued, atmospheric, and oddly reassuring, “Spirit Was” is the sound of a band on the verge of perfection. It’s a peak that deserves to be experienced by everyone so stop reading now and just hit play.

Listen to “Spirit Was” below and pre-order Return to Love from Sub Pop here.