“A new life, a new craze, a new sound, all the rage,” Geoff Rickly sings on “Serious Business,” the first song from United Nations’ new album The Next Four Years — except he’s demonically howling it, not singing, and you’d never pick those words out without the help of a lyric sheet. Still, those words have to cut deep for Rickly, a man who became a rock star at a strange and ridiculous twilight era in rock stardom. As the frontman of the seesawing New Jersey post-hardcore band Thursday, Rickly once fell ass-backwards into becoming one of the standard bearers for emo, in its strange and fleeting big-business period. For those of us who saw Rickly go from playing house parties and tiny clubs to headlining festivals in a few short years, that was a head-spinning experience, and god only knows what it must’ve done to Rickly himself. United Nations started out as an arty Thursday side project — anonymous members, satirical cover art, fearsome music — and it’s kept going long after the demise of both Thursday and the emo tag that never really fit them well anyway. Where Rickly once dripped sincerity, both onstage and on-record, The Next Four Years finds him playing around with ideas of punk rock and authenticity, mocking the foundations he came from. The cover art itself is a Black Flag joke, and the lyrics sometimes go beyond punk and into actual identity-play; the opening line on “Serious Business” is this: “When I was a boy, they called me Kid Lacan / Then in school, the teachers called me Teen Camus / Now, no one calls me anything.” I don’t know how much critical theory you took in college, but that’s a whole lot of layered meaning for the first few lines of a punk rock album. And yet, despite all the hall-of-mirrors philosophical stunting, The Next Four Years is an absolutely ferocious album, one of the finest extreme-music releases we’re likely to hear in 2014.
I talked to Rickly and his bandmate Jonah Bayer last week — check for that piece soon — and they both assented to the idea that United Nations was an art project that became a band, or at least an art project that became an art project with a really great band attached. The group’s membership has changed over the years, with Rickly and Bayer as the only constants. Once upon a time, members of Converge and Glassjaw were among the band’s anonymous personnel. These days, they’ve got a couple of members of the Baltimore screamo band Pianos Become The Teeth. But United Nations don’t sound like a shifting auteur-driven project, and they really never have. 2008′s self-titled album and 2010′s Never Mind The Bombings, Here’s Your Six Figures EP sound like the work of locked-in musicians, people who have gotten used to pulling the best out of each other. The Next Four Years is even more so. It’s an absolute maelstrom of a record, a frantic and huge and intense piece of noise that pulls in some of the most frantic and intense sounds from the various metal and hardcore undergrounds without ever sounding like aggression for the sake of it.
Without checking the packaging or the lyric sheet, you’d never really know that there was any sort of satirical sense of humor to what United Nations do. Instead, it sounds like something that Thursday might’ve made if they’d decided to go way, way heavier in the wake of Full Collapse and War All The Time. Rickly uses his demon-bleat more than his actual-human voice, but that actual-human voice, when it arrives, is unmistakable, and it always sounds tender and tough and overcome, the sound of someone attempting to survive a calamity so huge he can barely comprehend it. Musically, too, there’s some black metal and grindcore furor to what they do. Drummer David Haik loves using blastbeats and the guitars clang and scrape without mercy. But as with Thursday, there’s a majesty to what they do. United Nations have the good sense to let up on the noise every so often, and they have a way with quietly beautiful and foreboding moments like the Slint-y guitar pings that open “Meanwhile On Main Street” or the twinkly brooding that makes up the middle section of the seven-minute “F#A#$.” When they’re in attack mode, they’re not a lo-fi, tinny blur; they’re recorded to sound huge and monolithic. Even if they’re coming from a different place, musically and philosophically, from the bloodletting Bay Area black metal experimenters Deafheaven, they’ve arrived with something strikingly similar to what Deafheaven were doing on last year’s overwhelming Sunbather. The component parts are mostly different, but the final product roars and screams and cries with that same intensity.
As punk rock meta-commentary, The Next Four Years is rich and fascinating. United Nations are selling the album as a boxed set, spread out over a bunch of different records, including one where it might play one of those endings to one song whenever you play it. These are gimmicks, and they’re fun gimmicks. But the gimmicks fall away when the album is on, when it’s building from one raging climax to the next, when it’s obliterating everything around it. Rickly was in a weird position when he was leading Thursday, a personal and community-minded band, while seeing his image blasted up on jumbotrons and his ideas reduced to catchall buzzwords. But he’s in just as strange a position now: Lamenting and satirizing the contradictions within punk rock and its various rulebooks, while leading a band so sharp and adventurous and intense that, maybe without even meaning to, it’s making a good argument for the continuing artistic viability of punk rock, just by existing.
The Next Four Years is out now on Temporary Residence.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Morrissey’s arch, bitter-tongued return World Peace Is None Of Your Business.
• “Weird Al” Yankovic’s reliably goofy and good-natured Mandatory Fun.
• Honeyblood’s joyous, sparkling self-titled guitar-pop debut.
• Woman’s Hour’s sparse, seductive Conversations.
• Strange Desire, Fun. guitaris Jack Anatoff’s solo debut as Bleachers.
• Jungle’s slick self-titled synth-funk debut.
• Landlady’s busy and idea-jammed Upright Behavior.
• Luluc’s hushed, fragile folk full-length Passerby.
• Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Parry’s solo neo-classical project Music For Heart And Breath.
• Post-Mars Volta band Antemasque’s self-titled debut.
• Anand Wilder & Maxwell Kardon’s theatrically-minded Break Line: The Musical.
• Mutilations Rites’ crusty hybrid-metal rip-roarer Harbinger.
• Norah Jones side-project trio Puss N Boots’ debut No Fools, No Fun.
• Lazer/Wulf’s technical prog-metal ordeal The Beast Of Left And Right.
• Conveyor’s THX 1138-accompanying Prime.
• The star-heavy Wish I Was Here soundtrack.
• The Duran Duran tribute compilation Making Pictures Rhyme.
• You Blew It!’s Weezer tribute EP You Blue It.
• Guerilla Toss’s 367 Equalizer EP.
• Mexican Slang’s Inside The Velvet Castle EP.