Unwound never had the disposition to become famous. They were just three misfits kids who got together in obscurity; unbeknownst of the massive commercial attention their immediate peers would soon receive. But before that was the sound of teenagers playing punk in their garages for their friends, far from any spotlight or illusions, the beginnings of something special. Their barometer of success was Black Flag and that kind of mentality will only take you to the edges of the underground in terms of commerciality. However the route of fiercely sticking to your guns and playing constantly breeds a different kind of devotion and respect. Unwound has attained the kind of infamy that over the years has only reminded listeners how rare of a band they were.
The Numero Group excel at creating context for the historical music they reissue and this Unwound set is no different, with flyers and detailed notes that tell the story of the characters and places of Unwound and its surrounding scene. Kid is Gone collects the band’s demo cassette, early singles, compilation and live appearances and is the first of four such sets of the bands music. Far from the band’s best material, there is a certain time and place, as these songs lived on mix tapes and compilations, singles, meant to be heard in small quantities like pre-internet secrets. Musically, their ferocious cynicism is evident over the course of this triple LP set. Considering one of these discs consists of live and radio sessions, it’s not too much to digest.
Through releases on labels like Gravity and the then fledgling Kill Rock Stars, Unwound became noticed for their darkly abrasive songs. While Nirvana’s work is a clear influence, Unwound retain the inward dread but eschew the pop influences (Vaselines, R.E.M, Beatles) Cobain channeled. Instead, the more angular moments of the Alternative Tentacles catalog such as NomeansNo and Steel Pole Bath Tub combined with Melvins slowed-down sludge. But overall the most glaring difference between Unwound and its immediate peers is how informed by hardcore the band was. The Pacific Northwest underground was mainly divided between the Twee of Beat Happening’s K Records scene (let’s say Tiger Trap for example) and the grunge looseness embraced by mainstream culture. Unwound had little in common with either musically. Striving for tightness and ferocity in the ever-looming shadow of Black Flag, their desire fueled their small town discontent. In this sense they had more in common with East Coast compatriots like The Monorchid or even Born Against.
Musically informed by hardcore, Unwound evidenced none of its thematic cliché’s. Instead of shouting singer guitarist Justin Trosper mainly delivered in a calm yet assured dulcet tone, splitting the difference between brooding and explosive, saving his vitriol for the most advantageous moments. The rhythm section of Vern Rumsey and Brandt Sandeno were equal parts melodic counterpoint and thunderous sustain, more than a framework for Trosper’s minimal songs. The bands rebellion was not literal but an intensely introspective ennui channeled through punk angst. While they would evolve from this sound, hardcore remained an ever-present nuance of their sound, nowhere would this be as pronounced as during the band’s early phase. While the self-titled debut sounds like these influences their singles stood out. “Caterpillar” from the band’s debut single is the moment when the band fully finds its own sound. “Miserific Conditions” finds the band at full-speed, bashing out an instrumental of propulsive violence.
While the band’s best material is yet to come in their discography and with the crucial addition of Sara Lund to the line-up after Sandeno’s departure, Kid Is Gone sets the band up for a subtle notoriety, famous with an audience who remained intentionally obscure. Bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., once darlings of underground music, by the 90s were making videos for MTV and cashing major label advances. Unwound however retained an intimacy of punk credibility in an age when such factors were still relevant. The authenticity of discontent is directly connected to its source. The actual cool kids were savvy enough to know when they were being sold to. Decades later, Unwound emote with a conviction that still resonates. None of their members are now starring in American Express ads or playing watered down new wave. As individuals, they still are remembered for their music. With this set being aimed at diehards and those of us who collected the singles but never got to hear the demo tapes, we are satiated for now. The next batch of their reissue series begins the real treasure.
by STEVE LOWENTHAL on 12/17/2013 in Reviews | Tags: Black Flag, Born Against, Dinosaur Jr., K Records, Kid Is Gone, Kill Rock Stars, Melvins, Monorchid, Numero Group, Sonic Youth, Steel Pole Bathtub, Tiger Trap, Unwound