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Unwound
Rat Conspiracy Noel Gardner , May 9th, 2014 01:07

The niceties of music fandom and stylistic hairsplitting that arguably worked against Unwound during their decade or so together have probably also helped to make them a cultish and bankable band circa 2014. Rat Conspiracy – a handsome and only slightly overpriced triple-LP box set by the curatorial Numero label – indicates, in both the compiled music and the illustrated biography that accompanies it, that this Olympia, WA trio were on the cusp of many things, without ever fitting into any of them easily.

Forming in 1991 and releasing their debut single that same year, they had close ties with the riot grrrl scene which fomented in Olympia at that precise time – most of their music was released by Kill Rock Stars, whose early nineties roster also included Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear. Comprising two dudes, frontman Justin Trosper and bassist Vern Rumsey, and a woman named Sara Lund on drums, they lacked for further grrrl tropes. Their music had its roots in eighties hardcore, but never attempted flagrant super-speed; postpunk in its exploratory rhythms, while resisting the urge to explore the funk. Fugazi and Sonic Youth were often invoked by those passing judgement on the two albums collected here, 1993's Fake Train and (especially) its follow-up, 1994's New Plastic Ideas, but Unwound didn't go in for the iconoclasm and calls to arms those bands did – at a time when their album sales ran to six figures.

Their degrees of separation from Nirvana were probably few enough that they could have exploited that, had they wished, but they were punk rockers, and dignified ones at that. Releasing four more albums after New Plastic Ideas, all on Kill Rock Stars, they disbanded in 2002, and while they were in no way unheralded when they did so, it certainly seems that absence had made the heart grow fonder, the myth grow stronger. Perhaps created by download blog culture, there definitely exists a type of alternative rock fan who was too young to experience Unwound first time round, but views the way they evaded scenes inversely. A band who were on touching terms with riot grrrl, post-hardcore, grunge and the emo scene of the day (a 1993 single on the Gravity label would have done for that), but were too mercurial for all of them. It seems safe to assume that without this retrospective chatter, Rat Conspiracy – whose third LP, also titled Rat Conspiracy gathers a bundle of 45s and compilation tracks – wouldn't exist.

By the time Unwound came to record Fake Train, they'd already assembled a mini-album-length demo tape, a few singles and an LP – which they sat on, due to a member (original drummer Brandt Sandeno) leaving before all the studio work was done, and released a few years later. Numero have already compiled that early gear in the form of another LP box, Kid Is Gone, but – as with Slint, fellow radical hardcore interpreters given recent coffee table treatment – you're more than entitled to jump in at this point, where they get properly good. Slinging round ear-jabbing feedbacker guitars from the start, 'Dragnalus' is midpaced and fuelled by hefty powerchords. 'Lucky Acid' and 'Nervous Energy' both have the rhythmic itch of myriad Dischord bands from that period (not so much Fugazi as deeper catalogue cuts like Ignition or Circus Lupus), but more obscure and inscrutable. 'Valentine Card', an enduring live favourite, pins all its noise and so-corny-it-goes-right-round-to-cool lyrical anguish on a killer lolloping bassline.

While Unwound were never exactly locked into punk orthodoxy, either in their tastes or the music they played, it's only when instrumental 'We Are And Was Or Is' – the album's centrepiece of sorts – crops up that they start opening up air pockets in their songs, rather than filling ambience with scree-ing overdrive and bizarro jazz-as-much-as-metal solos. 'Honourosis', which follows it, finds Trosper foregoing his default proto-emo holler for a spoken word mutter session: glibly Thurston Moore-ish on a song which, in its first half at least, bears glib resemblance to Sonic Youth. 'Gravity Slips', meanwhile, is closer to the rootsy pandemonium of early Meat Puppets than one might expect of a band who didn't make a habit of being fast or zany.

Although Fake Train was scrappy compared to what Unwound later delivered (in the booklet, Lund talks about being embarrassed to listen back to all her percussive flubs), there's never the feeling that the trio are merely assimilating their influences. Their dynamic variety and angles of attack are as unique as those of Slint, Drive Like Jehu, Breadwinner or The Jesus Lizard, to name a few relevant bands. Trosper's guitar tone, at certain boisterous moments, has a curious resemblance to Kurt Cobain's on In Utero (recorded a month after this album), although there's almost no chance this is anything other than a gentle geographical coincidence.

Like  Fake Train, New Plastic Ideas comes in a sleeve which is basically someone else's album cover but with UNWOUND written on it – albeit a little more reappropriated than Another Monty Python Record and Bowie's The Next Day. Its nine songs, short and punchy to begin with but daring to meander later on, demonstrate a honing of the group's craft. Trosper and Rumsey stop on dimes and fly out of blocks with blossoming telepathy; Lund's drumming is audibly more adept than before, and on things like 'What Was Wound' and 'All Souls Day', has a hardcore punk tempo to it, even though Unwound as a whole were moving further away still from that foundation sound.

Recorded in a just a few days but far more open-minded than before when it came to the possibilities of post-production, Pacific Northwest indierock engineer du jour Steve Fisk presides over an album which at least considers the power of an unfettered rock & roll anthem. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have acknowledged an Unwound debt in the past, I believe, and it's tempting to trace a great majority of their sound back to 'Envelope' and 'Hexenzsene', which occupy eight minutes of this album. Following on from the occasional allowances for space on Fake Train, arrangements become ever more sprawling, riffs more crashing. 'Usual Dosage' foretells a certain kind of millennial post-metal in its surges of volume, although given its lyrical tack, a vaguely finger-wagging observation of drug dependency, it's semi-amusing that it's the next song, 'Arboretum', on which Trosper affects an Ian Mackaye-like singsongy vocal cadence.

While neither the fastest, slowest or longest cut on New Plastic Ideas, 'Fiction Friction' is perhaps its most abrasive moment, saved for last. Unwound's lyrics rarely warrant too much scrutiny (this applies to most post-hardcore bands of the era who didn't have an expressly political bent), and written down something like "I'm not the king of pain / Put it down the drain" could easily pass for an excerpt from a Silverchair song, yet over nearly seven minutes, it gets its gravitas from the slow, minor chord build-up to an intense, almost noiserock squall, and the post-euphoria comedown of amp hum and sustained notes.

Most of the songs on the third LP – two seven-inches, three tracks from compilations and three that have lain unreleased until now – are notable for being just that little bit too awkward to sit right on an album proper. (Certainly, by the time of New Plastic Ideas, one gets the impression that Unwound were keen to sequence tracks for maximum impact.) 'Totality' is choppy and on nodding terms with the sort of heart-on-sleeve hardcore that was prevalent in 1994, and stereotypically packaged in manila envelopes. 'Eternalux', from a comp made up of bands like Archers Of Loaf and The Grifters – even more quintessentially nineties alt than our subjects today – is a clanging test of nerves with its drums high in the mix, and one which probably didn't attract curious newcomers to their cause. Three songs recorded for the Troubleman label, its maiden release in fact, are markedly peppier thanks to the one-off deployment of trombone and sax; in the unlikely event you'd wish Unwound to sound more like a band who might have supported The Pop Group in 1980, 'Census' is the one. A cover of the Minutemen's 'Plight' salutes that band's style-snubbing twists, while clothing the song in their own sinewy paranoia and wirewool-scrubbed guitars.

For all their three-pronged power and musical fluidity, Unwound didn't, perhaps, quite make music which transcended the genres, styles and subcultures it was associated with. That is to say, Fgazi and Snic Y*uth were (and still are) bands who are held up, sometimes in a tokenistic way, as avatars of the American rock underground. Bands who people own albums by without necessarily bothering with anything else of its type. The release of this fancy-ass box will probably do little to change the fact that Unwound were for the real heads. If nothing else, this two-hour compendium of righteous, often superlative noise demonstrates that they could also cater to dancin' feet, and ears looking to be bled like radiators.

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