Sonic Adults

For ten years, noise rockers Unwound have been unraveling the constraints of musical perfection

Radiohead be damned! Over the past few years, there's been so much talk about yawn-boy Yorke and his unmerry mates and their status as rock 'n' roll messiahs for breaking out of the bored-and-old nonlinear mode (which had just broken out of the bored-and-old linear mode). Sure, they deserve praise for putting their bank accounts on the line by taking such musical risks, but so does...Unwound.

Yeah, what about Unwound? Nobody makes a big deal about their daring and inventive pursuit of rock perfection. You don't see the music illuminati espousing the merits of their music in great theses, or fans tattooing the band's name on their most private parts to testify to the lasting, in-good-times-and-in-bad union Unwound share with their listeners. This is probably because the band remain underground after all these years, despite their bold sound, their scores of top-shelf releases, and their many grueling tours (including a high-profile stint with Sonic Youth).

Unwound may have no control over pop's popularity contest--MTV be damned! But they don't have any particular commercial aspirations, either. "We've always tried to keep it on a pretty realistic level," explains guitarist/vocalist Justin Trosper during a phone interview. "We don't expect too much from situations. We concentrate mostly on the music."

In search of greater sales, Unwound sex up their music by removing sweaters, mussing hair, donning Playboy bunny ears
In search of greater sales, Unwound sex up their music by removing sweaters, mussing hair, donning Playboy bunny ears

In practice, this has meant that for more than ten years, Unwound--whose lineup includes Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey, and drummer Sara Lund--have been vigorously reinventing the half-century-old rock idiom, stripping it of its tired clichés, tweaking its framework, giving it feeling, giving it new life. In the process, the Olympia, Washington, band has produced some of the most innovative rock music ever grown in the Northwest--grunge be damned!

Each successive album shows the indie-rock troupe hiking deeper into uncharted territory: from the menacing grind of 1993's Fake Train and the propulsive drive of 1994's New Plastic Ideas to the adventurous character of 1996's Repetition and this year's epic Leaves Turn Inside You. These recordings reveal a group experimenting with form and function, harmony and dissonance, texture and atmosphere, tension and release.

What has kept Unwound engaged a decade on is the challenge of finding new ways to express themselves. "Discovery is still a big part of it, discovering new ways of writing songs or new ways of keeping things interesting," says Trosper. "The guitar is still a mystery to me in a lot of ways. I've gotten to points where I've [thought I had] gotten to a plateau, but really it was just me being lazy. Even doing something as absurd as learning a Led Zeppelin song keeps playing interesting."

Yet looking back upon Unwound's early days, one is hard-pressed to find anything even remotely ingenuous in their music. For instance, "You Speak Jealousy," a song the band recorded for the seminal 1991 Kill Rock Stars compilation, finds Unwound mired in the muddy trenches of noise rock, waging a more conventional and direct battle on the human ear.

"I can't say that we haven't at some point touched on some clichés, definitely early on," Trosper explains. "A lot of [the band's development] just came from playing a lot, touring, working on our individual instruments. Me and Vern learned how to play basic guitar together. We started out in high school. A lot of our sound comes from that." He maintains that the lack of formal training actually enabled the band to approach things from a different perspective. "That's a big part of it--learning unconventionally," Trosper says. "Not from an avant-garde sort of approach, but just unconventionally, from not knowing what the hell we were doing. And then trying to fit influences into that."

Another major influence was the addition of Sara Lund, who replaced original drummer Brandt Sandeno in 1992 (Sandeno plays Mellotron and the Fender Rhodes on Unwound's latest album). A skilled drummer with a penchant for complexity and syncopation, Lund helped open a world of sonic possibilities for Unwound.

Their growth was hard to miss. The release of Fake Train showed the band laying a whole new set of rails for their rock 'n' roll locomotive. On subsequent recordings, Unwound widened their noise-rock scope to encompass everything from jazz and psychedelia to ambient music and Krautrock, seeking more clever and subtle paths. "You can always dig deeper," says Trosper. "The older I get, the more evolved that kind of process is."

Appropriately, Unwound's latest and eighth album overall, Leaves Turn Inside You (Kill Rock Stars), is the band's most sophisticated and ambitious work yet. Here the trio distills a decade's worth of progress into a brilliant, two-disc epic, one that holds surprise at every turn. For the first two minutes of the opening track, "We Invent You," Unwound surprise listeners by erecting a layered wall of harsh, ringing feedback, before relenting and spiraling into a more melodic, tripped-out space. Next come the syncopated skips of the album's most pop-tinged track, "Look, a Ghost." An ominous mood and rocky rhythms converge on "December," and emotional detachment sets in during the mechanical yet entrancing "Treachery." On "Terminus," Unwound pulls listeners into an undertow of distressed vocals, jagged riffs, and jarring rhythms, before sweeping them into cresting swells of emotional release. And that's only the first 25 minutes of a 74-minute album.

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