No Future of What...
The World Mourns the Death of the Wonderful Unwound
by Daniel Mitchell
It's been some time since Unwound was one of my very favorite bands; the thing is, though, when a band releases albums like The Future of What and Repetition, and the listener falls completely in love with said masterpieces, a deep kinship and adoration is built within, and the love for the band never goes away.
Unwound was, in many ways, the most incredible and prolific band ever to exist, with such an amazingly small and unfair amount of fanfare. This band has released an incredible amount of music in its 11 years of existence, never releasing a bad record. From the Gravity Records style spazzcore stuff of their self-titled debut all the way to the epic, mature, and layered song structures of Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound truly never faltered. They are quite possibly one of history's most unique and unforgivingly abrasive bands.
If you've never had the opportunity to hear Unwound, they, like many bands, have phases of style. The aforementioned self-titled debut, on Honey Bear Records, is an interesting mix of aggressive spazzcore, very indicative of early-'90s western emo/metalcore. 1993's Fake Train finds the band with a new drummer (Sara Lund replaces Brandt Sandeno), and they (Sara, Justin Trosper, and Vern Rumsey) establish what will become known as the signature sound of the middle- to late-'90s Unwound output: staggered and swaying drumbeats, over-driven guitars with strange effects, over-driven bass, and Justin's sometimes bored and sometimes angry vocal style. Fake Train offers a glimpse of their brilliance, in tracks like "Dragnalus" and "Kantina."
By New Plastic Ideas, from 1994, the band had become quite good at what they were doing and had developed further their aforementioned sound. To put the sound into words is very difficult, but let's try: strange, angular, and discordant guitars... the bass, often times, sounds like the bass sound on Misfits recordings (from before they reformed in '95, dummy!). The drums are robotic and pulsating, played in such a manner that it really is impossible to keep from bobbing heads and/or swaying back and forth. The dynamics of their music are simply amazing! We all know how Nirvana popularized the clear, quiet verse to the loud and distorted chorus; well, Unwound were so good that they had such dynamics without the use of any switches from clean to distorted. The emotion of the songs and the intensity of each part created much more effective mood shifts than any early'90s alter-band ever could have! Unwound hone their craft masterfully on New Plastic Ideas, with standout tracks being "All Souls Day," "Fiction Friction," and "Abstraktions."
1995's The Future of What and 1996's Repetition are masterpieces, by any standard. These two records are essential to punk rockers past, present, and future. The unbridled ferocity of these two records stand as benchmarks for today's spastic emo and mathcore bands. These works represent a creative band, years and years ahead of their time, at their very best. The songs are so unique and well crafted, on both records, that they make comparison impossible. There will never be a more fevered pair of records in the spastic math/emo genre, ever again.
This brings me to another interesting fact about this band. In a nutshell, Unwound represent what can happen if a band avoids the "two seven-inches, one full length, and break up" formula, which was (and is) employed by many of the greats of this genre from the early 1990s (see Angelhair, The VSS, Universal Order of Armageddon, Heroin, etc.). Greatness can be attained when bands stick it out. For fans of the -- for lack of a better term -- "screamo" genre, when they think of Angelhair, they no doubt think, "man, those guys were brutal." Great, and they would be right, but when the same person thinks of Unwound, I'm sure, like me, they pick little bits and pieces of their favorite phases of Unwound. I would be willing to wager, as well, that music fans who've followed Unwound, like them or not, would have to think of them with the great envelope pushing bands of all time: Fugazi, Radiohead, Unwound, Portishead, Gang Of Four... these are bands who have always been ahead of the pack. Unwound's signifigance is undeniable!
Getting back to the phases of Unwound; Repetition was widely hailed as incredible, and it really put Unwound in the limelight. Sadly, though, its success broke the chain of a new record every year from the band, as fans would have to wait until 1998 for Challenge For a Civilized Society. This record is considered by many to be the culmination of everything good that is Unwound, and it's hard to argue against it. The songs on this record are wonderful, but the grainy, distant recording sound, present on all Unwound releases up to this point, is gone, in favor of a much slicker sounding Unwound. The band also broadens the horizons of their musical tastes here, as is evidenced by the incredible (and incredibly sad!) "Lifetime Achievement Award." This is the first "beautiful" Unwound song, ever, and is a must hear. This album represents a very mature Unwound, one with much less aggression and fever than before.
After a three year hiatus, 2001 brought the poorly publicized Leaves Turn Inside You. It is evident, almost immediately, that Unwound have transformed into a very dark, brooding art-rock band, taking the sadness of "Lifetime Achievment..." and multiplying it by 1000. Glimpses of the old Unwound still are present, but for the most part, Leaves wanders around on long walks through bizarre and spacey musical interludes. Again, though, in 2001, Unwound are still one of the most unique and thoroughly powerful bands in existence.
The wanderings of Leaves sends me to one of Unwound's most amazing facets... their live show. I saw them, in 1998, in Detroit, while they were touring for Challenge, and it was, quite possibly, the loudest show I have ever seen in my life. Like an idiot, I forgot earplugs, and the sheer high end on Justin's guitar sound was deafening! The thing is, though, that it didn't matter. I was such a huge fan of the band that I didn't care that I would have ringing ears for the next week. The sheer power of "All Souls Day," the song they opened with, gave me an incredible, euphoric rush of happiness that I have only experienced at two other concerts: my first Cure show, and my first Sonic Youth show. That's how huge they were live. Unwound. Completely and totally amazing! Vern Rumsey's chain smoking antics, hopping around in a druken haze, Sara hitting the drums with a craftsman's precision and care, and Justin getting completely wasted, tweaking his guitar into strange predicaments, a la Thurston Moore.
In my discussion of Unwound, I have failed to mention the tons of singles, compilation tracks, EPs and other output. They have a ton of quality singles, many of which can be purchased in one package on A Single History: 1991 - 1997. Pretty much everything the band released was released by Kill Rock Stars. The stuff that wasn't released by that label can be found on the band's "fact sheet" at killrockstars.com.
It truly is sad, people, to lose one of the world's greats. When Soundgarden broke up, I thought, "Oh, that's too bad," and never gave it a second thought. When Smashing Pumpkins broke up, I thought, "Too bad, but it was time," and went on with my day. I'm telling you people, losing Unwound is terrible. Were they past their prime? It's hard to tell. How does one define a prime? The Cure, 23 years into their career in 2000, released quite possibly their best album ever. Many thought they were in their prime in 1989, but they released a masterwork 11 years later. Fugazi, now 14 years into their career, released by far their greatest record, The Argument, just this past year. Those guys are in their late 30s, nearing 40. Unwound was only 11, and they're done. This is truly a great loss; I do, however, thank the band for 11 years of incredible, heartfelt, energizing, and groundbreaking music. You will be missed, Unwound.