DOA’s Guide to the Recordings of…Unwound

Welcome to the first installment of our new feature, DOA’s Guide to the Recordings of…, an examination of the catalogs of underappreciated bands or artists. Consider this maiden voyage a personal look into the releases of Unwound from the perspective of one fan. Read on, and please go out and buy some Unwound records.

Unwound were a noise-rock band from Tumwater/Olympia, Washington formed in 1991 by Justin Trosper (guitar/vocals), Vern Rumsey (bass), and Brandt Sandeno (drums). Sandeno was replaced in 1992 by Sara Lund, a key moment in the band’s history as it marked a dramatic shift in style toward a fascination with experimentation that continued throughout the band’s existence. Criminally overlooked in the span of its existence, Unwound changed from hardcore punk to psychedelic noise-rock to an amalgamation of psychedelic, post-rock, and shoegaze by its swansong Leaves Turn Inside You. After building their own studio to record that final album, the band members dissolved the group on April 1, 2002 prompting fans to speculate that the break-up was in fact an April Fool’s prank.

Unwound [Punk In My Vitamins/Honeybear; 1995]
This is Unwound’s first album. Although it was recorded in 1992, it didn’t get an official release until 1995. It still has all of the hallmarks of early 90’s west coast hardcore. This is more in line with Gravity Records compatriots like Heroin, Mohinder, or Angel Hair than what was to come on Fake Train and later albums. The least essential of the entire bunch, it still has a few good tracks. Most notable is the absence of drummer Sara Lund who would go on to provide the backbone that is key to all of Unwound’s subsequent recordings.

 

 

Fake Train [Kill Rock Stars; 1993]
Notable for being the first record to be released on Kill Rock Stars and for the introduction of Sara Lund into the group’s recorded output. Fake Train is a fiery tour de force of psychedelic noise-rock. From end to end there are so many high points that it becomes easy to lose track. Opener “Dragnalus” churns with an unreal energy, it’s riff throbs with wiry tension. It also has “the trilogy” of “Valentine Card/Kantina/Were, Are And Was or Is” which were accidentally burned on to a single track on the CD but remain separate grooves on the vinyl version. They cover an epic fourteen minutes showcasing everything great the band had to offer at this point: brutal hardcore, meandering psychedelic passages, and sublime beauty. The cover art is a defiled Tom Jones album cover, a fitting piece of art for the inaugural Kill Rock Stars release.

 

New Plastic Ideas [Kill Rock Stars; 1994]
Continuing in the same vein as Fake Train, New Plastic Ideas is another catalog highlight. It somehow manages to sound more desolate and lonely but streamlines the psychedelia and aggression into something more focused. The guitars have an echo-laden clang like early 80’s Sonic Youth in places. It includes the instrumental epic “Abstraktions” as its centerpiece. “Envelope” and “Arboretum” show off a spacious use of dynamics while “All Souls Day” is one of the most punishing moments in the Unwound repertoire. New Plastic Ideas is one of the band’s very best albums and along with Fake Train is a great place to begin.

 

 

The Future of What [Kill Rock Stars; 1995]
The Future of What is probably the single most aggressive Unwound album barring the self-titled release. “New Energy” and “Here Come the Dogs” are both wonderfully dense and violent. It’s single respite comes from from the bizarre elevator muzak piece, “Pardon My French.” The LP and CD versions of the album differ greatly, with “Full Explanation of Answer” and the three track spanning reprise “Excuse Me But Pardon My French” absent from the LP. Even if it isn’t the band’s best album it’s still a good one although not indicative of what’s to come on Repetition.

 

 

Repetition [Kill Rock Stars; 1996]
Not exactly an exercise in repetition as the title might suggest, this album marks the beginning of Unwound’s studio experimentation. Repetition is one of the most focused works that the band ever produced. It has all of the nervous energy embodied in the earlier albums but shows off an odd rigidity not previously present. The brilliant “Corpse Pose” alternates between choppy verses and a slashing minor key dirge in its chorus. “Lady Elect” and “Next Exit” are typical slow burners and “For Your Entertainment” sports single note guitar runs familiar to fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. After this record, Vern Rumsey lived in New York for a while and played bass on the Blonde Redhead album Fake Can Be Just As Good before returning to work with Unwound.

 

Challenge For a Civilized Society [Kill Rock Stars; 1998]
Challenge is the record that marks a notable transition in the band’s sound. I’ve always felt that this record had a lot in common with Wire’s 154 in that it seems like a purposeful shift towards art rock. There are many excellent ideas on this record, but not all of them work. “Data” is one of the group’s best songs, balancing the aggression of the earlier work with a more tight and angular approach much like some of the material on Repetition. Justin Trosper had reunited with Unwound’s first drummer, Brandt Sandeno to release experimental/musique concrete albums under the moniker Replikants in the interim between Repetition and this album. Some of the ideas here, specifically on “Side Effects of Being Tired” sound like Trosper was attempting to bring some of that influence into Unwound. Even if it didn’t always work, it provided the impetus for the major leap the band would make in the three years between this and Leaves Turn Inside You.

A Single History: 1991-1997 [Kill Rock Stars; 1999]
As the title implicates, this record compiles all of the comp tracks and singles released by the band between 1991 and 1997. It includes the awesome “The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train” single. Unfortunately like a lot of singles collections it just doesn’t hang together from end to end even though there’s some great material here. The early singles suffer from poor production and sounding dated. Better to start with one of the actual albums and leave this to fans who have everything else already.

 

 

Leaves Turn Inside You [Kill Rock Stars; 2001]
I can’t think of a better way to go out than with a double album full of some of Unwound’s best work. Along with Fake Train and New Plastic Ideas, this is one of the finest things the group laid to tape. They built their own studio, MagRecOne, and worked on the album there between 1999 and 2000. The extra effort seems to have paid off. It’s crammed full of the kind of textured guitar work and chamber orchestration not uncommon in shoegaze and post-rock. The closest antecedents would be Slowdive’s Souvlaki and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. There are still a few traces of the group’s hardcore and noise-rock beginnings, one need only look to “Scarlette” for an updated take on Trosper’s raspy howl and the band’s pummeling intensity. Although Leaves Turn Inside You is Unwound’s prettiest album to be sure, it wouldn’t be surprising if the piercing two minute feedback and drone intro to opening track “We Invent You” scared off some listeners immediately. Overall it provides the perfect summation of the group’s early work while providing the foundation for something entirely different. Leaves Turn Inside You is a fitting epitaph for a truly special band.