After two albums full of frenetic energy, LVL UP’s third album, Return to Love, displays many of the tropes of a maturing band. While the band’s songs were previously short and punchy, many now extend beyond four minutes. While their music once subsisted on simple guitar riffs, it now mixes in more experimental synthesizer effects. Yet despite these signs of apparent maturity, LVL UP are still utterly confused, as unsure of themselves as they’ve ever been.
Part of this confusion arises from the band’s unorthodox writing style. LVL UP started in Purchase, New York as a collaboration between guitarists Mike Caridi and Dave Benton and bassist Nick Corbo, and the three still all write and sing their own songs. For the many consistent musical qualities throughout the album, each band member’s songs distinctly stand on their own, making the album at times feel broken up and truncated.
If there is any kind of thread that ties the album together, it is the band’s expression of an inability to be understood. From the ponderings on spirituality in “Hidden Driver” to the boiling anger and resentment in “Pain,” there is a constant feeling on the album that the band’s experiences are unexplainable. Rather than try to solve or interpret the topics of their songs, the band submits to its uncertainty and embraces its lack of control. “The Closing Door” ends with the lyrics, “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” and that sentiment couldn’t be a better representation of the album as a whole.
Return to Love’s crowning achievement is in the way that the music uses distortion to convey a sense of inconclusiveness throughout the album. Guitar distortion is far from new, but LVL UP make it the defining element of their music. The buzz of guitar amps is a constant presence on the album, creating a noisy but pleasant drone that envelops part of every song and is often more noticeable than the instruments or vocals.
In the same way that the band gets lost in the subjects of their songs, the listener gets lost in the distortion of the music. In the beginning (and end) of “Five Men on the Ridge,” distortion combines with head-banging power cords to try and blot out any thought through pure noise. In “She Sustains Us,” distortion is a soothing constant below brilliant vocal harmonies. In these songs and others, it is easy to lose oneself and suddenly realize that several songs have passed by. Whether it is intentional or not, LVL UP stealthily and expertly transfer the feelings of the album onto their audience.
Return to Love is more a collection of confused ramblings than any kind of coherent statement. Listen to the album like it’s uncertain of itself. Get lost in the noise like the band is lost in their ideas. And don’t try to understand the album’s message, because LVL UP make it clear that they don’t understand the message themselves.