On "False Flags," the fourth track on United Nations' new album, The Next Four Years, vocalist Geoff Rickly yelps an unexpected plea to listeners: "Please don't take these things too seriously." In the context of that quote, he could be addressing a number of topics—politics and punk rock, to name a couple that come up a lot in the band's songs. But there's one other thing he'd prefer you not take all that seriously: the very band he fronts.
In fact, United Nations was never meant to be a full-time gig. When Rickly formed the eclectic hardcore band in 2005, he was still performing with emo powerhouse Thursday, which took up a considerably larger chunk of his time. United Nations released material sporadically, played live infrequently and featured a revolving-door lineup of members of other notable hardcore bands, like Converge and Glassjaw.
And even though Rickly is the only constant in United Nations, he concedes that even he's not essential to the survival of the band.
"We always said it should be an idea more than anything," he says. "We all made a pact: If the idea was still being held on to, anyone can be in the band. It wasn't a gimmick, like, Guess who this super-group is.' It really doesn't matter who's in the band. Just forget who's in it. I told the other guys, If you don't make a UN record without me someday, I'm going to be very disappointed.'"
Rickly might downplay the seriousness of United Nations, but on The Next Four Years, released in July via Temporary Residence, the band surely sounds a lot like they give a shit. That tends to happen with music as intense as theirs. With a new lineup comprising Rickly, guitarists Jonah Bayer and Lukas Previn, bassist Zac Sewell and drummer David Haik, United Nations has entered a newly elaborate and expansive phase on their latest release. Tracks like "False Flags" and "United Nations Find God" are one-minute blasts of visceral hardcore, whereas highlights like "Serious Business" and "Meanwhile on Main Street" blend punk with black-metal blast beats and indie rock's sense of melody. And on "F# A# $"—whose title is a jokey nod to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's second album—the group even stretches out into a passage of atmospheric post-rock.
The gradual escalation from raw aggression into more intricately layered compositions isn't just good sequencing; it's all part of a fairly involved and kind of absurd concept behind the new album. You can buy it as a simple CD or LP, but The Next Four Years was initially released as a box set comprising a cassette, two 7-inches and a 10-inch EP. And when you listen to the separate parts in the right order, you hear the sound of a band evolving right before your ears.
"We decided we sounded better in short bursts," Rickly says. "We had this idea, like maybe we'll never do a full-length again. Just like a 7-inch here and there. And we were, like, We could even do something cooler than that'—like a fake career of a band.
"Start out sounding really punk on the cassette—it's straightforward," he continues. "And by the time you get to the 10-inch, it's long and stretched out, complex. At some parts it's really pretentious. We like that narrative; every hardcore band starts out being almost not quite good enough to play, but very straightforward. And at some point, they hit their stride where... they really know how to play. They're keeping it basic, but they're really good at it. We'll have that period, and then we'll have the period where there are cool touches thrown in. And in the end, we'll have the part where they go too far."
United Nations play Nov. 15 at The Casbah
United Nations are, indeed, a high-concept band, albeit one that kicks more ass than most. But focus too intently on the noise and the intensity, and you might miss out on the humor and satire that comes with it. Their new album's title is a wink at Black Flag, for starters. They also released an EP called Never Mind the Bombings, Here's Your Six Figures and supposedly recorded a children's album called Plays Pretty for a Bunch of Fucking Babies, tipping their jocular cap to Sex Pistols and Nation of Ulysses, respectively.
Even when United Nations do broach political topics, they do so in a tongue-in-cheek way. Take this couplet from "Revolutions at Varying Speeds," for instance: "What's the difference between the real UN and the pigs you see on stage? / At least we can take a joke."
"A lot of it's parody. Some of it's satire. Some of it's meta-satire, even," Rickly says. "People in quote-unquote political bands you get this impression that, like, Oh, these guys are preaching all this stuff.' We're not preaching anything; we're just presenting information in an absurd way that makes you rethink the way you approach certain thinking."
For Rickly, there's no particular agenda behind United Nations, other than to make something entertaining, raw and, apparently, kind of meta. But however people perceive the band, Rickly just hopes their music leaves an impact.
"I don't want people to have a super-heavy emotional response to it," he says. "I don't want it to change their lives.
"I just want them to be, like, Holy shit!'"