The Units

History of the Units

by Evan Sawdey

9 August 2009


"Obviously, people with as little taste as yourself would become ecstatic over such average talent ."

cover art

The Units

History of the Units (The Early Years:1977-1983)

(Community Library)
US: 15 Jun 2009

The Units pioneered what is sometimes called “synth-punk”, a small movement in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s wherein bands completely rejected the notions of using guitars in its songs and instead focused on exploring the possibilities that could be created with a multi-tiered synthesizer assault. The Units were a San Francisco-based group who had a revolving-door lineup that makes Guided by Voices look like it has stable membership by comparison, but tragically, the group only had one substantial album to its name, the 1980 semi-classic Digital Stimulation. Though the group wound up following that album with the charting singles, “The Right Man” and “A Girl Like You”, things never really panned out in the critical arena, leaving the group relegated to mere footnote status for the decades that followed.

What a joy it is, then, to hear History of the Units, a compilation of the band’s early non-single material mixed with a couple Digital Stimulation tracks. Though “synth-punk” may be the buzzword that garnered the band a lot of attention back in the day (especially with the later rise of Depeche Mode), the truth of the matter is that the Units were master pop craftsmen, its barrage of keyboard sounds inevitably getting them labeled as a new wave act, which incidentally, was half true. Listening to History, you can hear how modern day synth-rockers like Metro Area and 3OH!3 are merely copying a template that both bands didn’t even know existed. Few songs in 2009 are as unbelievably catchy as “High Pressure Days” is (especially with its waves of percolating synths), and few pop numbers have as much psychological depth as the tortured character portrait “Bug Boy”, and the ever-shifting instrumental epic “Zombo” feels like the best part of several synth-pop explorations placed together to make for one delightfully surprising musical pastiche. 

Though most of these recordings are broaching three decades in age, there are enough fresh ideas and fun sonic detours to make you wonder why the Units never brought other people in to its own introverted musical universe, imploding in 1984 after its brief flirtation with chart success. No matter, though: With History of the Units, we not only have documentation of one of the most thrilling pop groups time has forgotten, but we also have one of the best albums to be released in 2009.

History of the Units (The Early Years:1977-1983)


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