Album Review: United Nations—”The Next Four Years”

By James Li, Feature photograph via Blowthescene.com

It’s throwback Thursday – let’s go back to the early 2000s, when screamo emerged out of the underground and crossed over to the mainstream: The New York Times Magazine declared 2003 the “summer of screamo,” and New Jersey band Thursday – the “great screamo hope,” in the New York Times’ words – led the genre’s charge into the mainstream. They were the Pearl Jam of screamo, which is both good and bad. Let’s start with the bad: Pearl Jam is great, but they invited droves of terrible imitators, meaning that they’re inadvertently responsible for butt-rock bands like Nickelback, Creed, and Hinder.

Album artwork for The Next Four Years

Album artwork for The Next Four Years

Similarly, Thursday aren’t terrible, but their explosive choruses, brooding lyrics, and frontman Geoff Rickly’s vocals, which alternate between strained screaming and a nasally white guy tenor, form the template for their own imitators. I’m not going to name names – but just look at the Warped Tour line-up to get an idea. Rickly is aware of this status, going on to say that his band’s rise to commercial success “defeated the original spirit” of screamo and discouraged independent DIY bands from playing it (The Talkhouse).

Enthusiasts of independent screamo tend to resent commercially successful bands like Thursday. They half-jokingly use the term “skramz” to refer to bands that came from screamo’s independent DIY scenes. Early screamo was abrasive and ambitious, but unfortunately for its fans, many “skramz” bands are defunct or foreign. In fact, screamo may be more alive and well in France, Italy, or Japan than in North America.

Here’s the good part, though: Geoff Rickly knows a thing or two about screamo. He is the only publically known member of United Nations, a screamo band that also includes members of Converge, Glassjaw, and Pianos Become the Teeth. Their latest album, The Next Four Years, is their first since their 2008 debut. The title The Next Four Years suggests a progressive approach, but United Nations look back in the best way possible. The Next Four Years captures the sound of 90s hardcore punk, before bands like Thursday came on the scene.

Maybe it has to do with their supergroup status, but United Nations demonstrates a wide range of influences. The Next Four Years bears the indelible mark of classic screamo (or skramz, if you will), but it also combines the pioneer spirit of Refused, the polemics of The Nation of Ulysses, the scraping noise of Unsane, and the spastic chaos of Orchid. United Nations play with the same aggression as these bands, but the production on this album is polished enough so that it sounds fresh.

The Next Four Years is at its best when United Nations stretch the confines of screamo. Album opener “Serious Business” kicks off with a wall of tremolo riffs and blastbeats that more than hints at black metal. Rickly sings the dead flag blues on “F#A#$,” an anti-capitalist epic replete with shimmering guitars that would do Godspeed You! Black Emperor proud. And while United Nations is a change of pace for Rickly, he can’t escape his past – his knack for melodies comes through. Tracks like “Revolutions at Varying Speeds” and “United Nations vs. United Nations” are as pretty as hardcore punk gets.

If there’s any flaw on The Next Four Years, it’s false advertising. Some press releases and album reviews refer to United Nations as a powerviolence band. However, listeners looking for powerviolence might be disappointed. Some of the shorter tracks, like “False Flags” and “Fuck the Future,” are competently executed, but the production is too crisp to make these tracks proper powerviolence.

If you couldn’t tell that United Nations are a band of jaded punk veterans, then Rickly’s deeply cynical lyrics are a dead giveaway. All of the songs on The Next Four Years are barbs aimed at politicians (“What’s the difference between the real UN and these pigs you see on stage? / At least we can take a joke”) and punks (“So if I ask you to sing along, just remember: it’s only a business decision”) alike. But you should laugh along; on “False Flags,” Rickly urges us, “Please don’t take these things too seriously / they are nothing but false flags / sorry, sucker.” Rickly’s lyrics are sardonic enough to make you laugh along with him. But every other aspect of The Next Four Years is so aggressive that you might just want to jump into a circle pit instead. (Temporary Residence)

Listen: “Serious Business”

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