Album Review: LVL UP – Return to Love

Reviewed by: Nicci Tait
Score: 8/10

On the brink of extinction, New York band LVL UP made a comeback with their latest album Return to Love. With each band member contributing to the songwriting and composition of the album, each song pulls from a different voice. That is not to say that even with all these ideas pouring into the album that it’s not cohesive. On the contrary, LVL UP has no trouble seamlessly moving from one song to the next. This is their first album with Sub Pop Records, and they’ve pulled out all the stops.
The opening track, “Hidden Driver,” makes one feel like Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer Jeff Mangum could pop out at any second. If you’ve read anything about this album, every reviewer has at least been able to agree on this.The fuzzy, simple toned guitar opening the track, along with hanging vocals throw back to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is what made me pick up the album in the first place. It’s not often that you hear a band accomplish creating that sound so well. Sprinkled in are references to God and a “she” that could very well be Anne Frank, it’s hard for me to separate the track from how I feel about Neutral Milk. That aside, “Hidden Driver” is a stand out track to me on the album that gives an explosive introduction, showing off what LVL UP is capable of as a band.
It’s difficult to listen to this album and not draw comparisons to other bands. As guitarist Mike Caridi said, “We’ve always kind of worn our influences on or sleeves and even gone as far as to actually talk about them blatantly in song.” I don’t see this as a bad thing. I think it gives Return to Love a level of familiarity with listeners who had never even heard of LVL UP before.
After the first track, the album switches into more of a garage sound, carrying more angsty lyrics with it. “I want to go home, I want to be alone. Riding red eyed to no one’s side,” sounds like something you might hear on their last album Hoodwink’d. Throughout the rest of the album, the ideas presented in each song reflect on both adolescence and adulthood alike.
“The Closing Door,” opens the last half on the album with slightly off pitch, dipping vocals that lead into one of the richest guitar parts of the entire album. “Until you remember to let me in and pray no more. And let the body set the score, spirit sifting through your pores,” is such an unsettling line to me it almost feels like the song is about entering someone’s life as an unwanted presence. Someone trying to “close the door,” on the speaker of the song.
The closing track for the album, “Naked in the River with the Creator,” is probably the strangest track to be placed on the album. The seven minute long song opens with a prolonged note synchronized and held below changing vocals. The track builds up around the first verse on that format until the line “Until I open my eyes.” The track opens up into this sludgy dirge over vocals that follow the slow, stomping drum line. I picture the band walking through mud in the middle of the night chanting the lyrics to this song. It feels like a religious experience. LVL UP’s bassist has noted that he always wanted to perform with a doom metal band- this track definitely gets close to that sound he’s looking for.
Return to Love is an album that I hadn’t planned on being so excited about this year. The beautiful album art drew me in and going in blind, I was thoroughly impressed. If you’d like to check out more from the band’s members, their bassist Nick Corbo is a part of the now powerpop/emo group Crying, who just released an album on October 14th. Guitarist Dave Benton is a member of Spook Houses, drummer Greg Rutkin had a hand in Morrison Brook, and Mike Caridi, another guitarist, worked with the Glow. They’ve been around the block a few times with the New York DIY scene in their hometown Purchase, and it’s actually quite easy to find their ties to other bands there. I loved this album, and I’m very excited to see how this band will grow in the future. LVL UP is the best band you’ve never heard of this year.

FCC: 1
RIYL: Car Seat Headrest, Pinegrove, Pup, Yuck
Favorite Tracks: 1, 2, 4, 6, 10

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