[21 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Thus far, the tireless label Numero Group only has two bands in its 200 Series of reissues. The first is Codeine, a short-lived band with a long resonant sound. They covered their material lovingly in one big box set. The other is Unwound, who present us with a much longer story to tell. If Codeine’s chilly slowcore emerged pretty much fully formed, Unwound grew into the sound that we recognize as their fierce, noisy art-rock leanings, and so Numero Group is presenting the band’s records (and story) across four box sets. The first was Kid Is Gone, a collection of material with original drummer Brandt Sandeno. It covers music made under various band names before they settled on Unwound and released their first proper record, Fake Train, in 1993 on Kill Rock Stars.
That is where the second installment, Rat Conspiracy, picks up. If Kid Is Gone was a genesis story, then Rat Conspiracy is the story of the band accepting its identity, honing its skills, and carving out its own sound, or at least the true start of it. It’s instructive to remember that there was an album titled Unwound released by the band in 1995. It was originally recorded in 1992 and should have been their true debut, but the band scrapped it, Sara Lund joined on as the new drummer, and they made Fake Train. If the band had found their name in Unwound, they were still fighting for what they would become. And so, Unwound sounds like a punk blueprint for the bigger, tougher to describe thing Unwound would become.
And the shift that came with time, and with Lund joining the band, is clear right from the get-go here. This set collects Fake Train and its follow up, the excellent New Plastic Ideas, along with bonus singles, comp tracks, and unreleased material. Laid next to each other, the two albums here sound like a band in constant evolution, always refining and tweaking the sever dichotomies and sharp angles that defined their brash sound. Fake Train opener “Drugnalus” shuffles to life, ringing notes rumbling over the dry snap of the drums. But then the chords rip through it all in powerful swaths of noise, and Lund’s drums pick up the shuffle into a machine gun rat-tat-tat. From there the album jumps fitfully to the chopped-up fury of “Lucky Acid” and into the spacier riff exploration of “Nervous Energy”. It’s in these bigger moments that we see the clear growth of the band. It’s not that they turned away from their punk or hardcore roots in these moments, but they built on them, twisting and reinventing them by taking them to their limits. “Nervous Energy” is full of just that, ebbing and flowing along tight hooks and the emotional range of Justin Trosper’s voice. There are plenty of singers in rock bands who can turn mumble to scream, but Trosper weaves tension into both, instead of using quiet as a set up for loud. For all the space here, all the build and crash, there’s not a moment wasted on Fake Train.
Its approach is best exemplified in the triptych of songs in the middle of the record. “Valentine Card”, “Kantina”, and “We Are And Was Or Is” are three separate song, but on the original CD issue of the album, they were combined into one track, and though there’s breaks between the songs, the combination fits. It sets up perfectly the opposite elements that inform the record. While Unwound could certainly get loud, and they weren’t the first loud-quiet-loud band, but their aims were more about texture than amplification, pitting the soft against the harsh. The ringing guitars that lead into the throat-shredding screams of Trosper on “Valentine Card”, the gobs of thick bass lines that run under razorwire hooks and the towering crash of drums on “Kantina”, the lush tones that devolve (or evolve) into feedback squalls on “We Are And Was Or Is”, all these moments create tension through feel rather than volume.
This also shows Fake Train at its most epic. The second half of the record has some songs that revisit the speedier charge of the band’s past, songs like “Gravity Slips” and “Ratbite”. These moments still feel more refined than the Kid is Gone material, and they feel like the last visit from the band to a place they’d left behind. No wonder the rumbling moodpiece “Feeling$ Real” finishes the record. Here the bass takes all the sharpness on and lets the guitar melt over it, while Lund drums steers the lot, rattling and shaking, all the way home. It’s a perfect bridge piece to the follow-up New Plastic Ideas.
New Plastic Ideas was recorded in the same year as Fake Train—the first was made in early 1993, the second made late in that year—and the move forward is striking. It’s striking at first because the approach is the same. It’s not a reinvention but a clarifying of the band’s noise. What’s remarkable about the record is that is clarifies without sanding anything down. We start with feedback squalls on “Entirely Different Matters”, perhaps to put us at ease that things haven’t changed all that much. But the song is a start-and-stop refinement of everything the band had done to that point. Trosper doesn’t scream over the fray but sings with a plainspoken power. Lund’s drums are more defined in the mix, and though there’s still the shift between soft and rough, the bass and drum mesh here to make that relationship more complex.
This new clear complexity leads us in all directions, from the quick ever-shifting strike of “What Was Wound” to the hard pound of “All Souls Day” and into grander epics like the brilliant “Abstraktions”, which takes the band’s use of space to its greatest and most fully realized extreme or “Fiction Friction”, which takes that same space into its most volatile territory. But 1994, when New Plastic Ideas came out, the band had full transformed from its pre-Unwound days into a band that had made a furious classic of a record. They addressed the frustration and isolation that so many indie bands of their ilk addressed, but few could transmogrify those feelings into a sound this crafted yet unruly, into a sound that could vacillate between the claustrophobia of being lonely and the sometimes scary open space of being alone.
The bonus material fills in gaps in the story of their evolution, giving us an impressive set of rarities that go from the hard hitting to the endlessly patient. The songs from the “Mkultra”/“Negated” single may be the most impressive here. The former song builds much in the way we expect Unwound to build in this era, but the poles of sound are more stark than on New Plastic Ideas, while negated is all barbed edge. These songs take the feral years and give them focus without polishing them up too much, and remind us of the unbridled zeal that informed everything the band did right to the end, even as their composition shifted from a focus on texture to a focus on noise versus the silence around it. There are other gems here as well, like “Broken E-String” and the band’s grinding take on the Minutemen’s “Plight”, which both honors the past and reshapes it, a fitting piece to the Unwound puzzle in their early Kill Rock Stars days.
There’s much more to cover in the Unwound story, and Numero Group will get to that soon enough, but Rat Conspiracy represents the true start of Unwound and shows just how quickly the band achieved greatness once it found itself. Fake Train is a brilliant set that lead to the classic New Plastic Idea, an album that would not be the last classic from this group. Because Unwound was and is essential, a singular voice in the diverse world we too simply call indie rock in the ‘90s. Unwound helped define that time, surely, but the best thing about Rat Conspiracy is the reminder that this stuff feels fresh now, cutting edge, even timeless.