Understanding Unsane requires going back to some of the grittiest urban blues ever recorded: Amphetamine Reptile Records. Touch and Go Records. Confusion Is Sex. Strap It On. Unsane remains one of the lone torchbearers of this raw, dirty sound, returning in fine form from a seven-year recording hiatus with Blood Run.
Unsane came from the same fertile late ‘80s, early ‘90s New York noise rock scene that yielded bands like Sonic Youth, Helmet, Cop Shoot Cop, Surgery, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The band distinguished itself from more artsy contemporaries by being straight-ahead and aggressive; the fact that Unsane was a trio contributed to its no-frills sound. As the only guitarist, Chris Spencer mostly avoided solos, sticking to churning, rhythmic riffs. To fill up space, Dave Curran ran his bass through distortion for a huge, filthy sound. Drummer Vinnie Signorelli used to play for Swans and Foetus, which pretty much says it all, although his playing was tight, with surprising amounts of swing. On top of all this was Spencer’s white-hot howl, much in the vein of other unhinged frontmen like Jesus Lizard’s David Yow or Circus Lupus’ Chris Thomson. They just don’t make singers like that anymore.
The band was the sonic equivalent of a bloody steak, with artwork to match. Gallons of blood soaked Unsane’s album covers. The band’s best-of compilation, Lambhouse, was named for the market in New York’s meat-packing district where Spencer would buy animal blood originally intended as shark chum. Photo shoots for album covers were quick, guerilla-style, and dubbed “blood runs”—hence the name of this album.
Unsane’s sound has largely remained unchanged through the years, except for tighter performances and better production on later albums. Blood Run picks up right where its predecessor, 1998’s Occupational Hazard, left off (the band temporarily disbanded to pursue side projects). Although songs have verse-chorus structures, the emphasis is on riffs and sound. Spencer’s riffs sound a little like Helmet’s (both bands have used the same drop-D tuning), but with dark, bluesy twang (Reverend Horton Heat’s first album comes to mind). Twang is a big part of Unsane’s sound; it comes from Spencer’s Telecaster, a guitar traditionally favored by country guitarists. Run through tons of distortion, even the gnarliest riffs here, such as in “Backslide” and “D Train”, have an appealingly “chewy” quality.
Although the tones here aren’t metal, this is still a heavy album. Slow dirges like “Hammered Out” and “Dead Weight” challenge Black Sabbath in doominess. Mid-paced stomps like “Killing Time” and “Got It Down” are New York desperation set to music; think rats, sewers, scraping together rent—this stuff makes Interpol seem antiseptic. Even faster, swingier numbers like “Recovery” and “Latch” let in no light, Spencer’s vocals as anguished as ever.
And, of course, there’s the artwork. It’s beautiful—or at least as beautiful as a dead woman in a bathtub full of blood can be. In recent years, Relapse Records in-house artist Orion Landau has consistently produced stunning designs, and this is some of his best work. Page after page of the liner notes show the same dingy bathroom—you know the one, with once-white hexagonal tiles and old-school sink with split faucets. Different angles depict the body both in the bathtub and dragged out of it, with accompanying bloody smears on the floor. In lesser hands, the scene is merely ghastly, but Landau lays out the composition perfectly, with an appropriately damaged typewriter font for the lyrics. The setting becomes oddly personal, and it’s hard to forget.
In an age of increasingly slick punk and metal albums, Unsane has remained true to their roots. This approach may not win the band many new fans. But for those with long enough memories, Blood Run is a welcome throwback to a time when rock ‘n’ roll was truly ugly and dangerous.