Unwound was a band from Tumwater, Washington who played Post-Hardcore music, essentially the stuff you normally associate with Fugazi and Jawbox and Drive Like Jehu and that Cloud Nothings would like to sound like now. They were the first band to release music on Kill Rock Stars, the label that, throughout the 90s and early 00s was primarily associated with them and their sister band, Sleater-Kinney. They started as a loud, aggressive, discordant act, developed this style into an art, and then, in 1998, made enough money and developed enough credibility with their label to build their own studio. For the next three years they worked on their masterpiece, which, for a change, actually turned out to be one. Of course, they broke up soon after it came out.
They were a fiercely independent band, playing guitars in alternate tunings, touring almost exclusively venues that were all-ages, and creating lyrics and artwork that referenced rebellious (frequently communist and futurist) thinkers. They were great. Learn about them.
1. Fake Train (1993) - B
Dragnalus is a monster of a way to introduce a first album: it’s explosively loud, angry and intense. Welcome to the land of Unwound. While the band had been together since 1991 and recorded one album before this (see below for more!), Fake Train was their first release. The reductive line that critics used for years to describe Unwound was Sonic Youth meets Fugazi, and on this album that is an incredibly apt description. They use Fugazi’s punk-speckled blasts of instrumental precision and pepper it with Sonic Youth-y guitar ambience and instrumental passages. Ignored in this grouping, however, is the fact that Unwound were contemporaries of Fugazi, rather than another rip-off group, and even on their early work they show their own unique style. While much of the album grinds, screeches and blasts its way through ferocious cuts, songs like Star Spangled Hell allow for winding instrumental breakdowns that show the band had a grasp on beauty. The biggest complaint I have is that this one is a bit samey: by the end most of the songs have blurred into a ferocious whole rather than differentiating themselves. Regardless, a high-octane and thrilling debut.
2. New Plastic Ideas (1994) – B+
Much like Fake Train, New Plastic Ideas sprints right out of the gate. Both Entirely Different Matters and What Was Sound are hard, loud, fast rockers. This time they owe more of a debt to Jawbox circa For Your Special Sweetheart, with driving guitars and rhythms set to screamed vocals that nod to melody without ever actually getting there. It wouldn’t be fair to call anything on this album catchy or poppy in a general sense, but there is more a sense of dynamics on this one than Fake Train, and they sound MUCH more in control of their fury and craft, creating songs that do more than just bleed into one another. Envelope and [BI]Hexenzsene[/I], for example, have verses that are sung rather than screamed. And then there’s Abstraktions, a 7+ minute instrumental that shows they’ve delved into Slint and early post-rock and can pull off a similar sound with ease. The back half, with the exception of All Souls Day, incorporates this influence into their larger sound. All Souls Day, on the other hand, is the highlight of the album, a near-melodic grinder that, at the end, locks into a single note pulse for nearly a minute before exploding to an end. Pound for pound, New Plastic Ideas is just below Repetition as the highlight of their early career, but it nevertheless is a bracingly great post-hardcore record from one of the best bands of the genre.
3. The Future of What (1995) – C
They go for ugly here, and they go for it hard. New Energy starts the album with a driving grind, setting the stage for the relative fury that would follow. Unfortunately, the grind tends to envelop most of the steps they had taken on New Plastic Ideas and obscures even the nuance that existed on Fake Train. Like that album, the songs bleed into each other due to a lack of change, but here it becomes more of a drain. Swan, the obligatory long song, drones on for 8 plodding minutes without much to show for it. After the developments of New Plastic Ideas, this can be viewed as nothing other than a disappointment. While it’s not bad, that doesn’t mean it’s good. (Note: there are quite a few Unwound fans who will insist this is a great album, so maybe I’m missing something. But, to me it is their least varied, least developed album outside of the first recording. Segue!)
4. Unwound (1995) – C-
Although not released until 1995, this was their first recording. The only release to feature Brandt Sardeno on drums rather than Sara Lund (he came back to play second guitar on the final album), it is the one to most clearly show their debt to Fugazi. Justin Trosper sings like a brutalized Guy Picciotto and his guitar parts are meatier and less jazz-influenced here than on anything they recorded afterward. A few songs (Understand and Forget and You Bite My Tongue) stand out due to more jaunty rhythms but otherwise the bulk of the release is a bit same-y, with the grind and scream of The Future of What overtaking the atmosphere. A blueprint, but not a terribly essential one.
5. Repetition (1996) – A
And oh, how different. Every previous release immediately started with a grinding guitar and pummeling drums: here, there’s electronic interference into guitars that chime, drums that almost swing and a near-funky bassline. Sure, Trosper screams his ass off a minute into Message Received, but the sound here is fuller, cleaner and just BETTER. Repetition tends to be the go-to early Unwound album for a very simple reason: it has the best songwriting and playing of their early career. Corpse Pose musically anticipates At The Drive-In’s best work, with a guitar line that blends post-hardcore guitar lines with blasts of pure, controlled noise over the suddenly-masterful rhythm section. And Trosper never screams, instead intoning the lyrics in a deadly monotone and reaching a strained near-falsetto for the bridge. It’s fantastic. Where before the grind and noise was an end unto itself, here they use these approaches as textural elements to build fuller songs, incorporating more nuanced guitars and vocals. However, the real stars of the show are Sara Lund and Vern Rumsey, who have developed into a precise, meaty and powerful rhythm section, which frees Trosper’s guitar up to more adventuresome approaches. He plays less here than on any previous album, and the space does their music wonders. Space is a good word for Sensible, where they create an honest-to-god good dub song that doesn’t sound out of place with the rest of the record. Go To Dallas And Take A Left, the penultimate track, veers from their prior instrumentals in that is a fairly successful attempt at free jazz/rock, with Lund’s drums propelling the band as Trosper and producer Steve Fisk battle on guitar and keys. A bleating sax jumps into the maelstrom at the end just to add to the fun. For Your Entertainment is the ideal closer, their most melodic track thus far, and one that builds to a big, almost-prog-like finale. A huge achievement.
6. Challenge For A Civilized Society (1998) – B+
Here, Unwound takes the progress from Repetition and applies it both to their older style and to new formats. Data opens the album like something that would have fit in on New Plastic Ideas, angular and grinding, but with the new-found space and rhythmic intensity that the band perfected on Repetition. Towards the end, however, the song dives head first into melody and pretty yet discordant guitar lines. Sonata For Loudspeakers is, far and away, their most successful and fully realized instrumental. They develop it from a quiet head to a thick, horn-filled climax as if they were a jazz band, circa ragtime. Not an era I would ever have expected to reference in regard to a post-punk band, but they exude the combination of joy and anxiety that pervades the best of that genre. Following the track with No Tech!, a short, angular yet tuneful rock track that would have fit on a Sleater-Kinney album is just perfect. The only problem I have with Sonata is that, two tracks later, they honestly create something more worthy of the name. Side Effects of Being Tired starts as a rock song then evolves into echoed, effects laden guitars, a propulsive bass-and-drum combo, and a plethora of other effects that create a noise symphony. They keep the work in control the whole time, even as it rages into discordant noises and electronic free-for –all. It’s a highly impressive piece. The last tracks reach for, and achieve a level of quiet beauty that early Unwound could never have thought to achieve. The only thing that holds this album backs is an early trio of songs that don’t reach to the same height-everything between Data and Sonata is good, but far too reductive and old-sounding to complement the strong growth shown on the rest of the album. Still a highly enjoyable listen and a step towards maturity for the band.
7. A Single History (1999) – B
In case you didn’t gather from the name, this is a singles collection. While not complete, it gathers a majority of the singles that Unwound released during their career, arranged in an order that makes sense musically rather than chronologically. This makes a certain degree of sense, as, while the band progressed greatly from their initial formation in 1991 to the date of the last single on this comp, 1997 (Mile Me Deaf/The Light At the End of the Tunnel Is A Train,) they maintained a unity of vision amongst their work. It also shows that Unwound was a very strong singles band, as many of the songs are highlights of their career even if they would not have fit in on the albums from their respective release dates. Opener Mile Me Deaf sounds like a progression of the melodic material on Repetition, with solid singing and a great beat. After that, they retreat to a series of more noisy, grinding tracks that would nevertheless have improved the thin, discordant The Future of What. MKUltra, in particular, shows a level of restraint they never approached on that album, and would have been a highly welcome breather track. Seen Not Heard, from the Repetition era, revs with a single-minded intensity while retaining the relative melodic developments from that album. That said, there are just as many duds here as there are hits. The early material (Caterpillar, Miserific Condition, Stumbling Block, and Crab Nebula) from 1991 suffers from a lack of development relative to later work. It’s also sorely missing Lund’s deft drumming. Said Serial may have the most annoying keyboard sound ever, and it just never develops into something worth listening to. That they follow it with Census, a short dub jazz instrumental that rivals their best work, is perverse and genius. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Plight is a cover of a Minutemen track, possibly the best band that’s ever existed-instant respect for the fact that they do it great justice.
And then there’s The Light At the End of the Tunnel is A Train, the longest song in their whole catalog. While it doesn’t actually close out the album (that is left to one of the lackluster 1991 tracks) it might as well have. It starts with a calm ambient opening before delving into electronic manipulations the drums and guitars from All Souls Day. They quiet down before ramping back into another Unwound sample, this time the drums and guitars and effects from No Tech!, with a really ridiculous answering message track from a dude describing a horrible-sounding aerobic workout music. It's a great, expansive track, totally unlike anything else Unwound did and completley worth listening to at least once. I wish I could bump the grade up for the inclusion of this track, but about half the album is faceless post-hardcore grinding that they did better elsewhere, while the rest trumps some of their best work. A mixed bag, as with pretty much all singles compilations, but worth hearing.
8. Leaves Turn Inside You (2001) – Grade: A+
There is nothing in Unwound’s catalog (really, in the KRS catalog or much in the post-punk/post-hardcore catalog) that will prepare you for this album. After years of matching abrasion with moments of sheer beauty, Unwound took the time to carefully craft a song cycle that truly shines, radiating craft, precision and gorgeous, developed textures. Right from the start, this album declares that it will be neither an easy listen nor a traditional punk offering, opening with individual organ tones that combine into a drone that lasts for near on two minutes (Fun fact: Brandt Sardeno, their original drummer, is playing the organ, the first sound you hear on the album.) As the actual song section of We Invent You takes hold, it becomes immediately apparent that the band is stepping out from its previous attack of vicious tones. In its place is an austere, nearly catchy vocal drone that swims in and out of the guitar tones. The band is completely together and the song is an ocean of tones. Look A Ghost follows with chiming, quickly arpeggiated guitar tones that fight with the syncopated vocals and Lund’s shifting drums to create a rhythmic beast of a track. While a track like this one would have, on previous releases, burst into grating guitars and pummeling drums, here they reach a point where the song has a near-Beatles instrumental tone, chiming with light drums and a bouncy bass. In the middle of a dark, post-hardcore track. Suffice to say, Unwound have grown up.
While the majority of the album finds them stretching their craft in as many ways as it can go, incorporating strings, synths and whatever else they can find, they also perfect the styles they’d worked with previously. December or Scarlette may nominally have fit in on past albums, but there is such a depth to the tone of the guitars, such a respect for space, and such a huge leap in Trosper’s vocal delivery that these songs are heads and tails above what they’d done before (Scarlette is the only song with Trosper screeching like he used to.) The middle section continually approaches and expands the post-hardcore tropes (angular guitars, driving rhythms, melodic basslines) into fully-formed expressions that nobody else in the genre ever truly approached. That they also reincorporate the shoegaze (One Lick Less), post-rock (Terminus) and free jazz/musique concrete (Summer Freeze) influences from prior records only elevates the whole album.
At 74 minutes, it is a daunting experience. However, there were few other punk bands working at this level: only Fugazi was able to come up with something similarly melodic, dense and affecting in the Argument. It’s fitting that, for both bands, these albums were their swan songs. They operate both as their definitive statements and the furthest stretches of their artistic reaches. The Argument is one of the more important albums in my development. I heard it first of all Fugazi albums, bought it completely without any outside influence and have adored it for ten years. That I prefer Leaves Turn Inside You should be a testament to the incredible work that Unwound achieved with this album. It deserves every bit of praise I have given it: an A+ is nothing but recognition that, by the end of their career, Unwound had achieved perfection. That it is prohibitively expensive as a physical product now is ludicrous. Despite the fact that I own a vinyl copy, I have petitioned Kill Rock Stars for years to repress this classic, to no avail.
I feel conflicted suggesting this as the ideal starting point for Unwound. It is, without a doubt, the highlight of their career, their most accessible and successful recording, a highlight of any genre you wish to include them in, and one of the most impressive albums of the 2000s. However, to listen to this first will forever spoil the rest of the fantastically enjoyable Unwound catalog. They worked towards such a phenomenal success, and perhaps you should too.
Edit: I reviewed every release bar A Single History based on its vinyl release.