Upright Forms / Blurred Wires

by hank shteamer

“I love anthemic, tug-at-your-heartstrings kind of music. I really do. And I think these guys do too…”

That’s Nick Sakes speaking on a joint Zoom with bassist Noah Paster and drummer Shaun Westphal, his bandmates in Upright Forms, about their upcoming debut album, Blurred Wires. If you’ve followed Sakes’ past output on the Skin Graft Records during the past 30-plus years — three LPs and various EPs, singles and compilation appearances, spanning four different bands — his statement might surprise you. This is, after all, the same man who spent most of the ‘90s howling over the surgically precise prog-punk of Dazzling Killmen and later the unhinged avant-rock of Colossamite, and then returned to the label in the 2010s as half of the ferocious, No Wave–inspired duo Xaddax.

But a penchant for the belligerent and/or bizarre is only part of Sakes’ musical DNA, as he revealed in Sicbay, a Minneapolis trio that released three albums’ worth of tuneful yet appealingly bent indie rock via the Michigan label 54º40' or Fight! from 2001 through 2005. Blurred Wires picks up on that thread, joining it together with strands from Sakes’ diverse musical past, and adding in Paster’s highly developed songwriting smarts and Westphal’s nimble but rock-solid drumming. The result feels like a summation of Sakes’ musical life to date: 10 compact songs that balance sturdy hooks and graceful dynamics with the potent tension, dissonance and overall oddity that mark much of his back catalog.

Consider “They Kept on Living,” a song that first appeared in an earlier version on Sounds to Make You Shudder! — a 2022 comp that marked the 150th Skin Graft release. It starts off with a grinding 7/4 groove, as Sakes spits out cryptic lines (“There’s a monster / Stuck in the maze / Frazzled and frozen…”) over scratchy noise-punk chords. After a brief build, the band explodes into a massive chorus, with Sakes shouting the title line against a fist-pumping riff, accented with Hammond organ from Paster, that initially reminded the band members of the Cars’ FM-radio staple “Just What I Needed.” “I remember us kind of laughing at how much of a rock anthem it sounded like compared to anything we thought we would write,” Westphal says. “And we were like, ‘Yeah, this is a hit.’”

Both Westphal and Paster came into the project with a longtime appreciation for Sakes’ prior work. Paster, a veteran of various Minneapolis projects, first met Sakes when his high school band Aneuretical shared a bill with Sicbay around 20 years ago. “I was just shy of my 18th birthday,” the bassist recalls, before saying to Sakes, “We thought you guys were the coolest shit ever.” Westphal grew up in South Dakota, and first discovered Sakes’ work after picking up Camp Skin Graft: Now Wave — a 1997 comp that featured much of the Skin Graft roster, including Dazzling Killmen and Colossamite — from the Touch and Go distro catalog. Soon after, he caught Colossamite live, on a freezing-cold night in nearby St. Cloud, Minnesota. “When I heard about Colossamite, they were from Minneapolis — that was weird to me, ‘cause all those bands were either from Chicago or just outer space,” he says. “So for them to be a Minneapolis band that we could go see at a shitty coffee shop in St. Cloud was just mind-boggling.”

Westphal later moved to Minneapolis, where he drummed in the post-hardcore outfit Mise en Place, and he and Sakes stayed in touch. During the pandemic, the two started joining up for bike rides. “When lockdown ended and the world started to open up again, one day Nick said, completely randomly, ‘Hey, what do you play, again?’” Westphal says. “And I said, ‘Drums.’ And he's like, ‘We should start playing music together sometime.’” Westphal had recently moved and had his drums set up at his house for the first time. “I was like, ‘How about this weekend? Come over.’”

In early 2022, shortly after the pair started jamming and putting together rudimentary song ideas, Paster texted Sakes to hello. ”Just out of the blue, Noah texted me just to see how I was doing — I hadn’t talked to him in years,” Sakes recalls. “I'm like, ‘Hey, man, how are you?’ And we started chatting. Coincidentally, I go, ‘I’m starting to play music with this friend of mine…’”

Paster joined in, and the trio settled on the name Upright Forms, borrowed from a lyric on the final Sicbay album. The three started working in a highly collaborative way, with both Sakes and Paster bringing in riff and song ideas — they cite Hüsker Dü, Blur, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth as multi-songwriter bands they admire — and Westphal initiating other pieces with drum ideas that Sakes asked him to send. “I had never done that, been like, ‘Here, guitar player, here's some drums. Try to write a riff off of that,’” Westphal says. “It was just different and new to me and kind of fun because it put me on the spot to not send him stuff that sucked.”

One song that originated that way was “Biology of Time,” which turns up on Blurred Wires as two expertly perplexing minutes’ worth of alternately jittery and driving art punk that suggests a collision between the Minutemen and Voivod. Other tracks skew more melodic, such as album opener “Heaven Knows,” which takes its cues from Sicbay’s most streamlined material and achieves an epic sweep within a tight framework. (The track’s working title, “Blurred Wires,” stemming from bits that reminded the group respectively of two shared influences, Wire and Blur, would eventually become the album title.)

Further extremes on the album showcase the band’s versatility. The trio sound equally convincing digging into the pummeling aggression of “My Lower Self,” where Sakes’ vocals start off as a feral snarl and then soar triumphantly during the chorus, or the soothing indie-pop hush of the second half of “Drive at Night,” a Paster-penned song, also sung by the bassist, that grew out of something an ex girlfriend said. “I just remember her saying that she wished she could just come down from feeling manic, and I asked what her coping mechanism was when they felt this way,” Paster recalls, “and she would take drives at night with all the windows down when it was summertime.”

Various “tug-at-your-heartstrings” touchstones informed the collaboratively written “Long Shadow,” from Superdrag on Paster’s side to Guided by Voices on Sakes’, adding up to one of the record’s most tastefully dynamic tracks. “Chopped Even,” meanwhile, makes room for urgent hooks within pure, chaotic energy. “That's just a hardcore song,” Sakes says of the latter track. “I just wanted to write, like, a Poison Idea song. I love Poison Idea — the way they write riffs is just brutal.”

Sakes was just as enthused about channeling Television Personalities, cult heroes of melodic British post-punk, on “Animositine,” another group effort that Sakes accurately labels “our prettiest song.” Paster’s steely distorted bass lends a certain bottom-end punch, but overall it feels beautifully serene, joining a handful of Sicbay tracks at the calmest, most affecting wing of the Nick Sakes discography.

The album ends with “Mission,” which encompasses all of the band’s strengths, from crafty rhythmic hiccups to more spacious passages that showcase Sakes’ underrated capacity for vocal pathos. Sakes says that the song represents him making peace with keeping his guitar parts simple so can focus on his delivery at the mic. “At the end of that song where I'm just playing one chord, it pushes me to say, ‘OK, well, I can take a little vacation on the guitar and think of a vocal delivery that I can take liberties with and have some fun with,’” he says. “That's a cool new thing in this band that I've never done before. It's exciting.”

It’s noteworthy that, nearly 35 years into his musical career, Nick Sakes is finding new ways to challenge himself — and that, in Noah Paster and Shaun Westphal, he’s found two musicians who are equally comfortable with such a broad range of approaches, from the thorniest to the loveliest manifestations of underground rock. When they reflect on their chemistry, they agree that their openness to collaboration — the way any one of them can bring in ideas, or chip in with an idea of how to strengthen a given song — is one of their greatest strengths. “We’re all really open to suggestion,” Sakes says. “That’s one of our superpowers.” 

On Blurred Wires, that superpower yields dynamic, challenging, profoundly memorable results, while leaving ample room for future growth.