LISTS A Beginner’s Guide to Unwound’s Otherworldly Post-Hardcore By Evan Rytlewski · January 08, 2020
Photo by Andrew Hutchinson

There’s something especially satisfying about late-blooming bands who spend their whole career building up to their best music, and then calling it a day. That’s basically Unwound’s arc in a nutshell; the Olympia trio spent a decade gradually tweaking and refining their post-hardcore until they achieved genuine transcendence on their monumental swan song, 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You. They went out on a glorious high that few bands will ever match.

The six albums leading up to that final statement are a bit of a mixed bag: frequently fantastic, sometimes forgettable, occasionally a little repetitive. Unwound could sound remarkably the same from record to record, until suddenly they didn’t anymore. That repetition—along with the fact that Unwound’s most celebrated album is also their least representative—can make them a difficult band for newcomers to crack. It doesn’t help that music history currently underrates them. In most accounts of ’90s underground rock, the group almost always takes a backseat to the more influential bands that they’re lumped together with: Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Jesus Lizard, sometimes even Nirvana. Unwound never aimed to have that kind of footprint.

And yet, for a certain subset of noise rock fans, they’re a foundational band: cultishly loved and often imitated. Cribbing Unwound’s discography is standard for the scene, and it’s hard to imagine a day when there won’t be young, loud, mathy bands paying homage. They were never a global band, but they’ve left their mark on the world nevertheless.

For the uninitiated, as well as for burgeoning fans looking for next steps after Leaves Turn Inside You, here’s a brisk run through the band’s discography.

Unwound

Unwound’s eponymous debut was a false start; originally recorded in 1992, it was shelved for three years following the departure of Brandt Sandeno, the group’s original drummer. It’s easily their rawest, most conventionally hardcore record, and by extension, their least distinct. That’s not to say it lacks glimmers of creativity: consider “Fingertips,” a standout track portending the tortured post-rock beauty that would define Unwound’s later work. Their overall vision wouldn’t be realized until later, but the pervading sense of unease was there from the beginning.

Fake Train

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Drummer Sara Lund left her mark on Unwound from the moment she joined the band in 1992. With a more counterintuitive percussionist behind the kit, Unwound’s sound was suddenly roomier, dubbier and more elastic. Fake Train, released the following year, sustains the band’s reputation for remarkable tension, but also distances itself from that confrontational formula somewhat; it’s a departure from the stiff ferocity of their debut in favor of a nimbler attack pattern distinguished by rhythmic whimsy. “Valentine Card” and “Kantina” wobble deliriously, each time signature change throwing them further and further off-balance.

New Plastic Ideas

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With 1994’s New Plastic Ideas, Lund and bassist Vern Ramsey lean into ever-more-creative time signatures, laying the groundwork of Unwound’s mathy edge to the usual breathless pace. It also marks the moment frontman Justin Trosper, who was never renowned as a great singer, starts coming into his own. His mumbled delivery makes specific lyrics difficult to discern, but the underlying pain is crystal clear, especially on “Hexenzsene”—one of several songs where his vulnerable voice fights against the noise before succumbing to it.

The Future of What

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Without a doubt, The Future of What is Unwound’s most underrated album, with a ferocity unseen since the band’s debut. These songs don’t just roar; they brawl, bruise, and on “Here Come The Dogs,” one of the most deliriously vicious songs the band ever recorded, they downright maul. Several odd organ interludes foreshadow the artier directions the band would pursue in later work, but the best tracks—the earth-scorching opener “New Energy,” the pummeling “Petals Like Bricks”—are all muscle.

Repetition

If not for the remarkable mic drop of Leaves Turn Inside You, this fan favorite would be remembered as the group’s high watermark. Unwound were never going to be a huge band, but Repetition was their best shot at becoming one; it’s their cleanest, meatiest, most polished record, with guitars that mirror the sleek, lean contours of a foreign car. The album is so crisply produced that it makes the band’s preceding records sound like they were recorded in mono. Repetition was still too hard-edged and esoteric for alternative radio, but its immediacy makes it a great gateway album for newcomers to the band.

Challenge For a Civilized Society

Though it’s regarded as the band’s one true misfire, Challenge for a Civilized Society isn’t nearly as controversial as its reputation may suggest. Yes, it’s an experimental oddity (it was released just months before Fugazi’s similarly uneven End Hits, and the two feel very much like cousins), but there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found here, from the free-jazz scribbles of “Side Effects of Being Tired” to the hypnotic chill of “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Diehards may differ on its legacy, but one thing’s for certain: Unwound were willing to go out on a limb, and for that, they deserve credit.

Leaves Turn Inside You

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Unwound took their time on their final record—a sprawling double album self-recorded in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse. That dreary ambiance bleeds into Leaves Turn Inside You, which is huge and haunted like nothing else in their discography, conjuring the crescendo-ing sweep of post-rock and the ominous scent of late-autumn rot. A prickly, unapologetically difficult album, it opens with two minutes of drone that warns off listeners like a ‘No Trespassing’ sign; those willing to stick around are rewarded with an hour-or-so’s worth of the most soaring, chillingly beautiful music Unwound has ever made.

Kid is Gone / Rat Conspiracy / No Energy / Empire (Box Set)

Since announcing their breakup after a doomed tour behind Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound have maintained they’re unlikely to ever reunite. But the 2010’s were nonetheless a great decade to be an Unwound fan, thanks to a series of meticulous box sets from Numero Group compiling just about every scrap of worthwhile music they ever recorded. These B-sides and demos are peppered with fascinating dropped ideas and spirited throwaways. Unwound were capable of remarkable highs, but their lows really weren’t all that bad, either, and even the most obscure stretches of these box sets contain some seriously vital music. Completist or not, it’s worth a listen.

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