The release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 might have marked the death of grunge for those already in the know, but it also sparked a chaotic rush from major label A&Rs to find the next big thing out of Seattle. Which meant…what exactly? It meant we got Candlebox and Seven Mary Three. It meant that Nevermind made a lot of people a lot of money, and that needed to happen again, and then more times after that too.
Imagine being in a band in the Northwest then. Hoping to maybe do it full time so you don’t have to work your shitty job and can go on tour without feeling bad about leaving your life and any semblance of financial security behind. Then imagine some A&R rep coming to your town, because it’s the Northwest, and because you’re in a band with guitars and maybe those guitars have the right amount of fuzz on them so that, if that A&R rep wants to pretend hard enough, maybe you could be as successful as Nirvana. That was either exactly what you wanted, or completely terrifying.
I’m not claiming that Olympia-based Unwound (they were technically from the neighboring, less hip town of Tumwater, but one kind of bleeds into the other anyway) were ever going to be as big as Nirvana. No one could possibly think that. Nor do they seem like the kind band that would particularly enjoy overbearing major label interference. It’s more about what they did with what they had. If you’re part of a specific subset of music listener, they are the pinnacle of a very specific type of insular rock music that is rigid and forward thinking and pushes boundaries even as it works within the system those boundaries have created.
But every cult-favorite gets their due, so here we are, three box sets into Numero Group’s tireless retrospective. Knowing what we know now, No Energy—which covers 1995’s The Future of What and 1996’s career-defining Repetition, as well as an assortment of live cuts and B-sides from the era—is the buildup before the band’s swan song, Leaves Turn Inside You, a double album that touched on post-rock and modern classical and just about every other genre (including some that maybe were invented on that record) with all the autumnal verve of a group of musicians that seemed to suddenly realize they had been stockpiling so much constrained emotion for so long, that all they could do was release it and then quit working together.
No Energy is essential even without that information. Listening to these box sets in order (don’t do it all at once), Unwound’s growth is clear: they moved from scrappy punk band with interesting ideas to a musically precise machine, harnessing feedback squalls, goopy drums, and guitars that sounded like they were repeatedly bashed against a brick wall, in an effort to approach dark transcendental bliss through repetition and coiled tension.
In the liner notes for No Energy, drummer Sara Lund writes, “We learned to communicate absolutely with our instruments, and while we were playing together, all personal tensions were erased. This band played with intention, never intending anything specific beyond honest expression.” If you think about Unwound from this angle, the band is cast in a spiritual light, and it makes sense. So much of the music here, from “Natural Disasters” to “Disappoint” to the fuzzed out tonal scrape of “Vern’s Answer to the Masses”, is head-spinning and angry, but very deeply so. Like Lund, bassist Vern Rumsey, and guitarist/singer Justin Trosper had made peace with whatever was roiling inside them by obsessively pushing it outward.
You can hear it on “Corpse Pose”, presented here in two forms, and as close to a signature Unwound song as you’re going to get. A walking bassline is almost immediately cut through with stabs of guitar that sound like what would happen if grunge quit aiming for cheesy guitar solos and played around with post-punk’s empty space. On its own, “Corpse Pose” makes a case for Repetition as the definitive Unwound album, but that doesn’t mean it eclipses the other gems to be found on the second half of this set: “Lowest Common Denominator” lurches and sways, with Trosper singing in a deadpan that leans toward simmering rage, and “For Your Entertainment” is basically a preview of the Unwound that would come later: Trosper’s voice oscillates between a blocky scream and an elliptical monotone.
The Unwound we hear on No Energy is a prime version of the band. They’re still straddling their punk roots and their experimental side with ease: dipping into dub on the soft, completely bizarre-in-this-context “Sensible”, playing with time signatures on the hectic “Murder Movies”. The songs here careen. This is the sound of a band that has no interest in saving any of their ideas for later, or calming down to think about what they’re doing. Amidst all the sonic density, there’s an audible joy of creation, even in retrospect, knowing that they would soon fall apart. Lund backs this up in the liner notes, writing that as the band’s “personal bonds dissipated, the music only got stronger.” She also mentions that communication was never their strong suit, which is key to understanding how this band worked so well, and also how it eventually stopped working.
The one constant through every Unwound album is that the trio, and assorted contributors, worked with a set of unspoken, nearly primal rules: feedback dissolves into nothing and riffs repeat hypnotically to the point that they sound like they’re about to crust over and splinter. Trosper, Lund, and Rumsey made music almost telepathically—they wrote on impulse and without pretension. They’re unique because they did this with so much control. Every note here sounds carefully considered, and just as carefully, every idea is left hanging before it can fully be seen through. There is no payoff except the lack of payoff. Once you accept that, their music becomes meditative.
Unwound are complicated enough to stay a cult favorite forever, but Numero’s reissue campaign goes a long way to placing them in the context they deserve. Listening now, they are still the kind of band that you can cherish deeply. They were so good at expressing alienation and discontent, that loving them said something about the way your brain worked and where you were willing to let your thoughts go. Nothing’s changed.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1u39wOP