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All Souls Day: The Burning Universe of Unwound

“The backstory is the key component to truly underline the genius of Unwound.”

Simon Kirk delves into the discography of ’90s touchstones, Unwound.

Olympia, Washington. A furnace for creatively in the ’80s, spearheaded by Beat Happening and K Records. As the ’90s approached, the cultural zeitgeist continued with the likes of Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and also the venerable Kill Rock Stars label.

Whilst it would be remiss not to mention other significant artists in the State of Washington, namely the Melvins and a certain Nirvana, five minutes down the road from Olympia is a placed called Tumwater.

Boasting a population of just under 120,000, during this period Tumwater wasn’t immune from the fertile landscapes of its neighbouring Olympia, and those producing the kind of art that would shape a generation and form the strongest thread in the DIY patchwork.

Friends since little league, Justin Trosper (vocalist/guitarist), Vern Rumsey (bassist), and Brandt Sandeno (drummer) did what all musically inclined kids do in high school. They formed a band; Giant Henry.

Having booked some local shows alongside fellow classmate, Jarred Warren (who had formed the other Tumwater heavyweight, Karp), as well as cutting songs in Sandeno’s parents’ basement, things were happening for Giant Henry, but in their own minds perhaps not fast enough (the band’s only full-length, Big Baby, was released by Numero Group in 2013).

The band grew restless, not least because of their name and after quick consideration, Trosper, Rumsey, and Sandeno decided to ditch the moniker in favour of something more immediate.

They settled on Unwound

Having recorded their debut album in 1992 (more on that later), Sandeno left the band shortly after. With Trosper and Rumsey combing the streets of Tumwater and Olympia in search of his replacement, while there was a brief dalliance with Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, their search led to Sara Lund.

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Having moved to Olympia from Bloomington, Indiana, at the age of 12, Lund’s contribution to Unwound was all-encompassing; her driving, neck-rattling rhythms arguably the primal force behind the glorious disarray we would associate with the band.

Unwound were almost like the mongrel offspring of grunge. Akin to downtrodden charlatans, despite their origins leaning closest to post-hardcore, Unwound were never shackled to a genre. Their aesthetic blurred the lines of many styles.

That’s why their body of work is so fascinating. Even after years of consuming, there are still moments throughout the Unwound discography that contain the kind of thunderbolts that strike like you’ve just experienced them for the first time.

Stylistically, Unwound were uniquely vast and steadfastly referential. Particularly with the underground cult classic, 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You. The post-hardcore genre probably hasn’t extracted a shinier, more precious jewel from its crown since.

While this may be true, trying to grasp at how Unwound came to this ridiculously opulent point, and one must start from the beginning of their journey. By doing so, it simply enhances the legend of their endpoint. A band that burnt out instead of withering away to previous versions of themselves, and a gruelling conclusion after years of creative friction and inner-tension.

Not only does this feed into Leaves Turn Inside You, but the remnants of their collective angst is scattered all the way through their discography, reaching fever pitch at the band’s ultimate conclusion.

That’s what makes Unwound simply Unwound.

Unwound (photo credit: from artist's Bandcamp page)

Following the release of Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound disbanded, playing their final show in Olympia on April 1, 2002. Since then, the band members continued their creative pursuits elsewhere.

Alongside original drummer, Sandeno, Trosper formed Survival Knife, releasing 2014’s Loose Power and the Survivalized EP a year later.

Lund became the drummer of The Corin Tucker Band, and in 2016 formed Nocturnal Habits alongside Trosper, releasing their brilliant self-titled debut album that probably stands as the best release outside of Unwound.

As well as performing solo as Red Rumsey, Vern Rumsey formed Household Gods alongside Slint‘s David Pajo, Lauren K. Newman, and Conan Neutron, with the band releasing their debut album, Palace Intrigue, last year.

Sadly, Rumsey passed away last August, shortly after its release. He was 47-years-of-age.

This feature was in the works at the time of Rumsey’s passing and while we have agonised over publishing it, Rumsey’s passing wasn’t the sole reason why this has taken an age to see the light of day.

Admittedly, as someone who didn’t grow up accompanied by the sounds of Unwound, and instead being introduced to the band (like most people my age) through Leaves Turn Inside You, working backwards through their catalogue is an exercise that takes years to fully grasp. Even then, it can be rendered as hazy, potentially leading to staunch debate.

Such as the unique nature of this band, this perspective is no doubt very different from those who were at the coalface. From a personal point of view, it’s probably the most enthralling engagement in an artist’s back catalogue and, because of this, it’s made it all the more difficult to author.

So, with that, rightly or wrongly, here is an Unwound reality of a different kind.

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Fake Train (1993)
Kill Rock Stars

Don’t let the photo of Tom Jones fool you. Technically the band’s second album (again, we’ll come to that in a bit), Fake Train is arguably post-hardcore’s first serenade with jazz. The title and artwork itself, inspired by John Coltrane and Sun Ra.

Fake Train is an explosive mess, in many ways defining Unwound. A band that just played, and on Fake Train a lot of these beautiful accidents made their way onto tape, careering through the vaults for our listening pleasure.

Trosper’s throat-shredding howls on Dragnalus set the tone for Fake Train, while the aptly titled Nervous Energy sounds very much like its namesake – a track where Unwound sound apprehensive to either stick or twist, which in many ways feels like the Unwound experience as a whole. Just one big sprawl of nervous energy.

Then there’s the wild sonic ramble of Kantina. Brimming with Lund’s shadowy rhythms, they enable Trosper to cut loose in a fitted rage in what is arguably the first gem the band unearthed. Kantina bleeds into the instrumental that is Were, Are and Was or Is. The kind of song that may not have made too much sense in ’93 where Unwound’s story is concerned, but listening to Leaves Turn Inside You, and one could argue that the seeds for such a dynamic record were planted here.

The flashing blade of Pure Pain Sugar strikes the darkest blow on Fake Train and while Lucky Acid and Gravity Slips are a vigorous head nods to ’80s hardcore, it’s Ratbite that captures that particular idea perfectly; its hell-shaking, anthemic intensity the kind that bands close their live performances with.

Lund went on to say that Fake Train was an album she couldn’t listen to, due to the mistakes she had made from behind the kit. However, in many ways it tapped into the Unwound ethos. Unquestionably, Fake Train laid a solid foundation for this incarnation of the band.

New Plastic Ideas (1994)
Kill Rock Stars

New Plastic Ideas stretched the boundaries Unwound reached during Fake Train.

From Entirely Different Matters and Envelope, Lund and Rumsey’s formidable whirlpool rhythms rose to prominence, jumping out at listeners with the immediacy of life-changing prose from a page. Their partnership, pivoting and creating open pockets of space for Trosper’s hearty, mirthless screams.

At the time, comparisons to Sonic Youth were rife, but as time has passed, these comparisons have been shaken off to a degree.

If anything, one could say that Unwound’s tones lent themselves slightly more to grunge, but with Lund’s hypnotic high-hat assaults and Rumsey’s hooping bass lines, New Plastic Ideas seemed to infiltrate the underground of post-hardcore to great effect, sharing a similar reverence to the likes of Polvo.

While the unhurried post-rock reverie of Abstracktions underpins New Plastic Ideas, it’s All Souls Day that completely steals the show. Throwing all the best elements of Unwound into the melting pot, All Souls Day is a dissonant, unhinged assault launched by a band at the top of their game.

Backed by Rumsey’s booming bass lines, Usual Dosage dovetails perfectly with All Souls Day, with Trosper showcasing a burning intensity through drop D tunings (a method widely used on NPI), alongside his frightening howls.

Then there’s Areboretum, which remains a firm favourite, as Unwound dispense the quiet/loud dynamics that they tapped into later throughout their discography.

While many consider it their weakest record, New Plastic Ideas could arguably be accredited as the start of Unwound’s ‘signature’ sound. Bursting with razor-wire tension and raw force, quite simply, it’s an album not to be bypassed.

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The Future of What (1995)
Kill Rock Stars

The cover art of The Future of What contains the illustration from Russian architect and graphic designer, Yako Chernikov, and would mark the first grand departure for the band.

Along with the cover art, Unwound’s influences were starting to emerge beyond the American shores. Sonically, the band had begun merging the ideas of English post-punk with the origins of kraut-rock.

While Fake Train and New Plastic Ideas skirted around their quarry waiting to pounce, on The Future of What they make a beeline straight in for the kill. The loose anticipations of the band’s first two albums are replaced with dead-eyed precision. Harnessed by the band’s go-to producer, Steve Fisk, there is definitely a tighter aspect to The Future of What.

Rumsey’s driving bass lines on New Energy catapult Unwound with, indeed, just that. However, the fury bubbles and explodes, led by Trosper on cuts such as the frenetic short blusters of Descension and Petals Like Bricks.

In an unlikely moment, it’s Pardon My French that reveals a new skin for the band, with a whirring interlude bursting with influences of kraut-rock. With the band touring the U.K. prior to the release of The Future of What, Lund became drawn to the likes of Stereolab and Pardon My French is clearly influenced by that.

While Disappoint lines the listener up for another aural pummelling (“I never want to dive inside this heart of mine having no idea what ever happened to/I’ll disappear I won’t know it’s true/Disappointed in me, disappointed in you.”), it’s the closer in Swan that completely seals the deal, in what is one of Unwound’s finest moments committed to tape.

In all of its eight minutes and three seconds of glory, endless guitar tracks spit with rage, as the band’s pent up fury comes to a head. The title inspired by Trosper’s encounter with Swans’ live show experience, and its namesake sounds every bit as visceral.

Comparing The Future of What to their first two records may be a disservice to some extent. Such as the obscure world of Unwound – as a listener – sometimes one has to pinch themselves to make sure they are still listening to the same band; one forever shifting in shapes, styles and range. The Future of What is further evidence of that.

It wouldn’t stop here, either.

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Unwound (1995)
Punk In My Vitamins/Honey Bear

While perhaps considered a circuit-breaker of sorts, given that Unwound’s self-titled album wasn’t released until 1995, it was the band’s first recording and one, as stated earlier, which included original drummer, Brandt Sandeno.

Recorded in 1992, Sandeno had left the band before it was mixed, which inevitably left Unwound to gather dust for the proceeding three years. Its eventual release coming via Rumsey’s label, Punk In My Vitamins.

As the years have passed, Unwound can be seen as a post-hardcore staple. Possessing the kind of unbridled urgency we associated with Fugazi, the raw energy that a young Unwound tapped into on their first recording had sparks flying.

Opening track, Antifreeze and Rising Blood are nervous assaults, splintered in punk and post-hardcore, while Understand & Forgot stretches the sonic ideals of Minor Threat with an anthemic chorus that would trigger the wildest circle pits imaginable.

And that’s the spirit of Unwound. An album that creates a world of possibilities by breaking through the walls of anxiety with frightening force. There’s no better example than Stuck In the Middle of Nowhere Again – a song that rages with a beautiful chaos born out of grit and fury.

Then there’s Kid Is Gone. A track so vital, it has gone onto influence a drove of artists, most notably …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, with echoes of the aforementioned cut prominent with their own masterpiece, APerfectteenhood.

It’s difficult to place Unwound in the band’s body of work. It’s unquestionably Unwound, but with Sandeno behind the kit, it’s a totally different proposition. That may say more about Lund’s proficiency if anything, but given it was Unwound’s first recording, in all of its 24 minutes of glory, oddly enough, Unwound isn’t the worst place to start in the band’s discography.

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Repetition (1996)
Kill Rock Stars

Having spent 1995 touring alongside Fugazi, Brainiac, Sonic Youth, Polvo and Blonde Redhead (Rumsey would go on to play bass on the latter’s third album, Fake Can Be Just As Good), things gathered pace for Unwound.

On the back of these tours, the band signed a publishing deal with BMG, after being courted by the company’s acquisition director, Margaret Mittleman. Prior to this, Mittleman was responsible for signing Beck before releasing his breakthrough song, Loser, and later managed Elliott Smith before his 1997 breakthrough, Either/Or.

The publishing deal would enable the members of Unwound to focus solely on the band, with laborious day jobs a thing of the past.

With Fisk once again at the helm behind the soundboards, on Repetition Unwound welcomed new recording techniques and instruments that were prominent from the outset, with synthesizer, vibraphone and vintage tape-delay devices all featuring heavily during the recording sessions.

Perhaps audacious, however the results were unsurprisingly absorbing.

It all begins with Message Received where the melting chord structures sounds like Big Black on downers, with Trosper’s split personality-like vocals off-setting his melodies in something truly visceral. The Albini reverence also drips into Murder Movies, however with more of a Shellac flavour.

Those unfamiliar with Unwound will still be familiar with Corpse Pose; arguably the band’s most far-reaching song. Held together by Rumsey’s most distinctive bass riff, it seems to draw upon all the elements of Unwound in just over three minutes. In some sort of blood-lust, Rumsey isn’t finished with Corpse Pose, as his shuddering bass lines collide with Tropher’s crunching guitars on the tightrope walk that is Unauthorised Autobiography.

Closing side one, Lady Elect is something truly incredible. A slow creeping number, it swells with a new found intensity that put Unwound in a planet completely on their own. It’s arguably Trosper’s most personal song, said to be about the suicide of a close friend.

Unwound always went against the grain, and on Repetition that continues, indeed, saving their best for last.

If Lady Elect didn’t completely vaporise Unwound’s audience, then Devoid certainly did the job. Simply put, it’s one of the finest songs the band conceived.

Driving music in its purest sense, transcending the likes of what Swervedriver achieved with Raise, the kraut-rock exploration of Go to Dallas and Take a Left bleeds into closing cut, For Your Entertainment. So good, it’s a song most other bands would open an album with and one where Trosper parts his finest diatribe.

“Getting sick of business / Overlook what’s in us/ Sugarcoat the palate / Lower all our standards / Cynical awareness / Lucky to be careless / Everybody’s got it / Sickened by the thought of it /Suffer for your sins / Pay you by the hour/ Follow any trend that comes their way / They will pick your life apart / And throw away your art/ Finding something new is never hard / Entertainment.”

It’s the kind of discourse that truly ignited the burning world of Unwound, encapsulating the ethos of Kill Rock Stars – one of the perfect marriages in ’90s underground music. The ethos of music. The ethos of art.

Repetition is an album that, at the time of its release, many would have thought couldn’t be bettered. This was it. Still a favourite in the eyes of many, and at the time it was their most successful release, selling just short of 20,000 copies.

For the benefit of new ears, Repetition is most certainly a-la-carte Unwound, and from their hazardous cache of sounds, it perhaps encapsulates them best.

Challenge for a Civilized Society (1998)
Kill Rock Stars

For any artist following something as prolific as Repetition, it would be equally frightening and electrifying. With the songs from Challenge for a Civilized Society written in less than two months, Unwound produced some of their most direct work (Laugh Track).

Many would claim that an album like this is ‘focused’, but such terms kick against the whole idea of Unwound. A band forever walking along the fault-lines and being thrilled by the idea of their own world coming apart at the seams.

The sneering maelstroms of noise still feature prominently here, but where Repetition felt like a dagger from the shadows, the blows on Challenge for a Civilized Society are dealt in broad daylight.

“False Alarm!” screams Trosper through the crosswinds of Data; a song splintered with a angst and anxiety. So too Meet the Plastics, which skirts within the aesthetic of something The Breeders may have written in their early days.

Taking queues from Go to Dallas and Take a Left, Sonata for Loudspeakers excavates deeper into the pits of kraut-rock, with a jazzy ambient swagger harnessed by sinister drones and Lund’s multi-dimensional rhythms.

Which leads into NO TECH; a feverish lo-fi scramble that’s basically laid the groundwork for many post-punk bands today.

Side Effects of Being Tired is vintage Unwound, but with yet more sonic layers that send us into a tailspin. The most explosive moment on Challenge for a Civilized Society, it brims with improv’ freak-outs that the aforementioned Coltrane and a certain Charles Mingus would have been proud of. Loose, frightening, and very much real.

Whilst receiving positive reviews at the time, as the years roll on, Challenge for a Civilized Society is one the band’s less talked about releases. Despite containing several noticeable spikes, it showcases Unwound tightening their overall sound with a denser aesthetic.

Whichever way you look at it, and with the benefit of hindsight, it only illuminates the beauty of Unwound. The direct approach of Challenge for a Civilized Society made for what came next even more astonishing.

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Leaves Turn Inside You (2001)
Kill Rock Stars

With an album like Leaves Turn Inside You, it truly deserves its own space. 20 years since its release, there was an avenue to do just that, however, as stated earlier, the backstory is the key component to truly underline the genius of Unwound.

There were several key shifts in the writing process of Leaves Turn Inside You, beginning with the recording, which took place at the band’s self-built MagRecOne studios in Olympia.

Secondly, the band opted to part company with long term producer, Steve Fisk. Despite contributing Mellotron on Scarlette and strings on Who Cares, Unwound opted for a new set of ears from behind the studio glass in Philip Ek (The Shins, Band Of Horses).

Fisk wasn’t the only one to contribute to Leaves Inside You, with Brandt Sandeno and then-Sleater Kinney drummer, Janet Weiss, among those to feature.

The production in itself is like a cryptic crossword. A pile on of overdubs and new tones that, at times, render Unwound as near-unrecognisable. In actual fact, it was a case of a band fighting the same war with shiny, brand new weapons (see the warped October All Over, which sounds like post-hardcore tripping on acid).

On Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound unmasked a sequence of perfectly sculptured compositions that explored the depths of psychedelia and post-rock. In essence, it’s a band conjuring up their own sound worlds, fraught with tension and boiling with dread, creating an atmosphere filled with haunting hell-scapes that penetrate the skin, sinking deep into the marrow.

In summary. It’s a fucking epic.

The hanging orchestral composition of opening track, We Invent You, is like a waltz on clouds. A curtain-raiser for the existential unease that’s about to unfold.

Look a Ghost is a vaporised version of what Unwound was; the searing post-hardcore gut-punch making way for a new found art-rock aesthetic, while December and Off This Century combine as a head-on collision between Old World and New World Unwound.

Brushing new shades of darkness across the canvass, particularly in the case of Trosper’s lyrics, Treachery and Demons Sing Love Songs are like sinister storms that would scare off an apocalypse.

Then there’s Terminus and Radio Gra. Songs that significantly expand Unwound’s orchestral designs. The unbridled arrogance of even attempting something so audacious is one of the finest examples of a band shedding new skins. In particular Terminus, which – like December and Off This Century – reaches for the band’s sound of the past and tosses it into the burgeoning present.

The atmospheric intensity of Terminus (and later with One Lick Less) splice Bark Psychosis-era post-rock with later representations of the genre. With the warped dread of Summer Freeze, Unwound are unapologetic in showcasing their anglophile leanings, with sounds of early ’90s British post-rock seemingly now ingrained within the band’s psyche.

Unwound do dance in the fires of the past, however they use a more baleful method before coercing us into the flames. It comes in the way of the barrelling surge of noise that is Scarlette; one the finest moments on an album that contains many, with Tropser’s mutant shrieks capturing a bare urgency that transcends even the finest moments on The Future of What and Repetition.

If Terminus is the epicentre of Leaves Turn Inside You then Below the Salt has to run it mightily close. An elastic, hypnotic post-rock fever-dream, Below the Salt captures the menacing undercurrents of darkness that bubble throughout Leaves. If it weren’t for the aptly titled closing track, Who Cares, Below the Salt would have been one of the greatest ever sign-offs from a band. Such self-sabotage was probably seen as an in-joke to a band like Unwound.

People claim that Leaves Turn Inside You is the last true underground classic, and it’s difficult to provide a counter argument.

Undoubtedly, it’s among your Spiderlands, Rustys, Exploded Drawings, Vs‘. An eternal work that has no currency with time, forever morphing around and into what’s in vogue for eternity.

They say it’s better to burn out than fade away, and Unwound are the shining example of that. From their humble beginnings as Giant Henry, right up until Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound left an indelible mark on underground music, ending it all at the summit of their creative arc.

2 replies on “All Souls Day: The Burning Universe of Unwound”

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