When a band makes the jump to working with a significantly larger record label than they have previously, it’s easy to wonder - or even worry - about what change this move will bring the band’s music. It’s the age-old dilemma that countless musicians have faced to widely varying results over the years, whether increased exposure and support will force them to relinquish a level of creative control. In the case of Purchase, New York lo-fi rock band, LVL UP, the worry would be that in moving to the indie behemoth Sub Pop Records for their third album, Return to Love, that their eclectic and jarring brand of fuzzed-out rock would be smoothed out into something more straightforward, more accessible, more predictable.

Fortunately, in LVL UP’s case, this is absolutely not the case, and Return to Love is an example of a band refining and improving upon their sound in a way that is truly remarkable. LVL UP’s formula for crafting songs is one that feels destined to turn into a disjointed, incohesive mess, and the fact that at no point does Return to Love feel that way makes the album even more enchanting. Guitarists Mike Caridi and Dave Benton, and bassist Nick Corbo all equally split songwriting and vocal duties, bringing their song ideas back to the group, which is rounded out by drummer Greg Rutkin, to be fully realised.

The result is a strange and wonderful sonic melting pot that is a little impossible to totally define or find comparison for. The closest I have come to describing it is Neutral Milk Hotel (the most definite seeming of LVL UP’s influences throughout the album), if Jeff Mangum was born 20 years later. Except they’re playing with Dinosaur Jr’s guitar gear. Oh, and they’re trying to replicate the writing style of later Beatles albums, where it’s clear which member of the band wrote each song, but somehow it’s still cohesive. It speaks volumes to the band’s collaboration on the final product.

The opening track, ‘Hidden Driver’, immediately channels the spirit of Neutral Milk Hotel through ringing, distorted acoustic guitar chords, soon juxtaposed with a quick, pitch-bending synth line that gets swept away by an avalanche of sound as the full band kicks back in. This moment in the opening seconds of Return to Love is a fitting sign of what the rest of the album will bring, and what makes it work so well. Different sonic flavors and styles come in and out of the music from every direction, and you’re never sure how long they’ll stay, or if they’ll subtly come back later in the song.

There is something jarring about LVL UP’s music within the context of an album. From song to song, it’s hard to track the trajectory that LVL UP is taking the listener on, with slow and fast songs alternating wildly, builds leading to massive song-ending crescendos then rebuilt in the intro of the next song. Songs range in pace from the drone and doom heaviness of ‘Five Men On the Ridge’, to the infectiously bouncy and joyous ‘I’ two songs later. The unpredictability of Return to Love extends beyond sound to the actual structure the songs, as well. Tracks range everywhere between under two minutes to over seven, and all of them are fully realised and precisely as long as they need to be. None of them feel abbreviated, nor dragged out, and each resonate both on their own strength, as well as being a piece to the puzzle that is this album.

This is maybe the most impressive part of LVL UP’s shapeshifting routine on this album. Their ability to so effectively pull off sounds as wide ranging as the 1:51 long, Built to Spill-esque Pacific Northwest indie of ‘Blur’, to the 7:11 long pounding dirge that closes Return to Love ‘Naked in the River with the Creator’. That everything in between is carried out with equal proficiency and emotionality is remarkable.

This aspect of Return to Love has also brought about one of the most joyful and welcome experiences I ever have with an album. I enjoyed it immensely from the very first listen, and with each subsequent time through the album, appreciation has only grown. It’s an as surprising and unpredictable, yet unquestionably enjoyable 40 minutes of music as I have heard in a long time, and is a shining example of the best possible scenario when an underground band takes a big step toward much larger exposure.

Return to Love is an album that solidifies LVL UP as a band deserving to be considered among bands like Car Seat Headrest, Modern Baseball, Pinegrove, The Hotelier, PUP, and Beach Slang, who are making 2016 the year that much needed new life was breathed into guitar-based rock music en masse. Like many of these bands’ releases this year, it is also an album that seems primed to become the next addition to the already massive group of sleeper album of the year contenders. The case that LVL UP is making with Return to Love is hard to argue with.