Beginnings matter and, in many cases, serve to affirm an energy or ethos that ties together an artist’s career. For punk bands, whose ethos and worldview are often stronger currency than artistic talent or output, these initial moments are used to trace back to a band’s authenticity. Were they living “the lifestyle” (whatever that might mean) beforehand? This question can be reversed as well, with listeners, writers and people who generally think about music too often sizing up artists to see if their output still stands up to their original goals and points of view. And while we get the occasional Ian MacKayes, Kathleen Hannas and Steve Albinis—visionary artists who’ve stuck pretty close to the goals they set up as rather young people—this line of questioning usually leads to a pretty severe case of disappointment.
New York City post-hardcore quartet Big Ups’ journey began in a pretty mundane way: The band’s members met five years ago as music technology students at NYU. And while, somewhere along the line, they began crafting music that has a tendency to get pretty intense, they never completely let go of that mundanity—that everyday-ness. That’s not to say any of the music they create—on debut Eighteen Hours of Static or follow-up Before a Million Universes—is boring or uninspired. In fact, the band’s technical training allows them to do interesting things within a genre that’s getting up there in years. But the way vocalist Joe Galarraga attacks his subject matter, which puts capitalism and social injustice in its crosshairs, is often lyrically nonchalant, as if he’s flicking a half-smoked cigarette in the direction of the wealthy citizens of America and, most specifically, New York City.
It’s that calloused, understated sort of reaction in lines like “Tell me what you’re worth/ salary, two weeks of work” that serves as a gateway into Big Ups’ ethos. These are four millennials, recent college students, who’ve begun to see cycles repeat themselves already in their relatively short lives. But on Before a Million Universes, their reaction seems less anger-fueled than their work on Eighteen Hours of Static; the scales of injustice serve less as infuriating surprises and more like calls to arms. Big Ups know the score; they’re just hoping to change it.
Big Ups have allowed their musicianship to evolve with them. The overall arch of louds and softs, of interchanges between mumbled, subdued sections and furious peaks of noise—that all is still intact. But the quartet clearly pumped even more work into their songwriting this time around, and the effort has really paid off. Galarraga’s words aren’t just given a vehicle to travel upon; his voice becomes one with its surroundings, allowing for a more effective attack than if the individual elements remained isolated. And perhaps that’s the point the band is trying to make: The only way we get through this is together.