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NYC indie-rockers return to make a racket at BAR

"It's typically a show that requires earplugs," enthuses Up the Empire drummer Ben Lord, speaking of his Brooklyn-based quartet's attention-grabbing live act.

Bassist Dan Hewins quickly agrees. "Ben's a really loud drummer, so we tend to be kind of loud, too - there's a lot of energy there."

There's a lot of melody, too, something that you might not expect from a band that's so frequently described as a "noise-rock" act - and from New York, to boot. But while that tag might connote the kind of cooler-than-thou melodic obfuscation of bands like Liars, there's none of that pretentiousness in Up the Empire's sound whatsoever. In fact, you can pretty easily hum all three songs on their latest effort, an untitled 2005 limited-release EP (which you can hear online at www.uptheempire.com) that wraps a trio of very catchy tunes in a crispy shell of distortion, feedback, and cranked-up, insistent bass.

That balance, says Hewins, is the core of what Up the Empire is all about. "We're giving a lot of focus toward vocals and melodies," he explains. "The noise comes in more like a textural kind of thing." But, according to Lord, it's still an integral part of the band's sound, no matter how poppy the songs get. "It's definitely not an afterthought. A lot of times we'll actually start working with something that's just a noise part, and [the melody] evolves from the various layers that are happening there."

"The thing that I've personally wanted to try to achieve is sort of, if you took Sonic Youth and were able to throw them into the pop world full-on," he continues, and the comparison is apt - you can hear the jagged guitar sound of those avant-rock giants cutting its way across Up the Empire's songs, along with a bit of My Bloody Valentine-ish shoegazer haze (especially on the stellar Starfuck Me, perhaps this band's catchiest song so far) and the grungy melodicism of Dinosaur Jr.

And though it's true that all of those bands peaked in the late 80s/early 90s, these guys, like their kindred spirits in Deerhoof - whose producer, Jay Pellicci, they worked with on several tracks - manage to bring them together into a very now-sounding whole.

The band has been around in various incarnations for a while, originally formed by Lord and guitarist Chris Renn back in 1998 as a Louisville, Ky combo called Kilowatthours. The pair went through a revolving cast of additional members until the lineup eventually firmed up with the addition of Hewins in 2002 and guitarist Doug Keith in 2004. Then came the name change, which took a bit of brainstorming to figure out - the one they eventually went with is also the title of a Holly Golightly album, but Hewins admits that most of the band didn't even realize that when they picked it.

Lord describes Up the Empire as "probably twenty times more aggressive" than Kilowatthours, whose songs traded more in quiet tension than outright sonic bombast - except that, at their live shows, they usually ended up transforming their mellower material into loud, explosive rock performances. These days, though, "we're finally doing on record what Kilowatthours was doing live," the drummer says.

And with the solidified lineup also came one of the other unique aspects of Up the Empire's sound - the fact that everybody but the drummer sings. While Renn had handled vocal duties almost exclusively before, "we realized that Dan had a great voice, and eventually he started taking more lead vocals," says Lord. Eventually Keith (whose voice, the drummer says, has "a great Dinosaur Jr. quality") started contributing vocals, too, and these days it's roughly an equal-thirds split between him, Hewins, and Renn.

It's likely that vocal dynamic will especially come into play on Up the Empire's newest material, which they just finished recording for a full-length album due later this year. Hewins says the album will take things in an even more upbeat, catchy, "kind of danceable" direction, while Lord calls it "crunchy and driving."

You'll be able to decide for yourself this week, as some of that stuff will likely be on the bill as the band heads to New Haven on Sunday - returning to BAR after playing a Sunday night gig last year with Ume. This time, they're reuniting with old friends Calla, who Lord says they last shared a stage with two years ago in Dallas. And just as that band, which put out its critically-acclaimed 2005 album Collisions on the respected Beggars Banquet label, has come a long way since the two last crossed paths, it seems like Up the Empire will be hitting similar heights in the near future, too.

So catch them now while you can, but screw the earplugs - this band is worth the hearing loss.

Hear it Live

Calla and Up the Empire

Sunday, Jan. 29

9 p.m., no cover


254 Crown St., New Haven

©Play :: New Haven's Arts & Entertainment Weekly. 2006
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