The No Energy boxset provides a valuable opportunity to place the unsung Unwound in a proper context, both offering nostalgia-tinged appreciation of a band at the height of its powers, as well as putting the music of the '90s Kill Rock Stars stalwarts in a new light.
Despite the whole back catalogs of even the most obscure bands being just clicks away, deluxe reissues have become a thriving cottage industry of late. Anomalies in a downsizing industry, they can feel redundant or indulgent, with the sound quality of streams and downloads rendering the finer points of remastering moot, while limited edition boxsets tend be luxury items that are often too hard and too costly to track down. Yet even if Numero Group's painstaking and extensive four-part reissue series of Unwound's complete works might fall under the latter category, it's actually the farthest thing from being extraneous. On the contrary, these sets have provided a valuable opportunity to place the unsung Unwound in a proper context, both offering nostalgia-tinged appreciation as the best of such projects can, as well as putting the music of the '90s Kill Rock Stars stalwarts in a new light.
On such terms, the third box in the series, No Energy, accomplishes everything a good reissue should, presenting a blast from the past that pays proper tribute to how prolific and proficient its subject was in its heyday. More than that, No Energy captures a snapshot of Unwound at the height of its powers, gathering together 1995's The Future of What and 1996's Repetition, the latter considered by many as their quintessential recording both at the time and in hindsight. On the one hand, No Energy traces how Unwound's aesthetic was unwinding itself at the time by placing the two albums side-by-side, as the raw, more raucous forms of The Future of What developed into the complexity of Repetition, where the group's sound revealed greater intricacy even as it bore greater heft. On the other, much of the music here is too vital and intense to be chalked up as simply a history lesson, something that can be appreciated without all the background.
On The Future of What, Unwound had clearly distinguished itself among the next generation of junior Sonic Youths. Here, they took the baton from math-rock standard bearers Polvo (which you hear on "New Energy" and "Natural Disasters"), while blazing the trail for the likes of Blonde Redhead to follow on tracks like "Demolished" and "Accidents on Purpose" -- which makes sense, considering how Vern Rumsey played bass on BR's breakthrough Fake Can Be Just as Good a few years later. But it's perhaps the alternative history traced by "Equally Stupid" and "Here Come the Dogs" that provides the most intriguing and thought-provoking moments on The Future of What, as they imagine what Nirvana might've sounded like had that power trio never busted out of the Pacific Northwest underground.
The play of contrasts that was Unwound's calling card comes into clearer focus on The Future of What, as the threesome flashed its ability to find something almost ethereal out of its heaviness, drawing out traces of uncanny melody from the vapors of their thrashing punk moves and metallic weight. The song title "Petals Like Bricks" offers an apt enough description of how these dynamics work as Justin Trosper's riffs feel like they float up against the foundation of the dense rhythm supplied by drummer Sara Lund and bassist Rumsey, while "Descension" makes even more out of this give-and-take between rapid-fire strumming and sludgy, lugubrious bass lines. Here, you notice Unwound repurposing elements of its peers and predecessors, only to shape them into its own vocabulary and unique accent.
It's really on Repetition, though, that Unwound came up with a vernacular and syntax all its own, crossing over from the kind of band that's pulling away from sounding like its inspirations to one that's starting to do the influencing itself. The stabby, angular post-punk that defined them earlier is matched and augmented by longer, almost post-rock-ish explorations, touching on a variety of tones that are in turns brutal, artsy, and even wry. From Trosper's slicing hooks to Rumsey's buoyant bass to Lund's on-point drumming, all the elements just stand out more on Repetition, as if the reps had honed everything to a sharper edge.
Right from the start of Repetition, Unwound showed that it was ready to take that next step by frontloading two of its definitive pieces at the top of the tracklist, the rumbling, imposing opener "Message Received" and the bristling single "Corpse Pose". Both are built on the interplay between Rumsey's rolling, rubbery bass and the acute angles of Trosper's guitar, particularly on "Corpse Pose", where bounding bass is punctuated by lacerating riffs. "Unauthorized Autobiography" follows both up by opening up Unwound's sound just so, as Trosper's tense speak-sing vocals and clipped riffs dissipate and resurface as they ride the ebb-and-flow of Rumsey's bass lines. On these pieces, Unwound's regional variety of indie-punk attained its Platonic ideal, fueled by the primal intensity of hardcore, but channeled into a heady complexity that was just as bold.
Sometimes shifting the balance towards punk energy, sometimes tilting more to its more high-concept predilections, Repetition worked through different permutations of Unwound's perfected formula. On songs like the spasmodic "Go to Dallas and Take a Left" and the tightly coiled "Murder Movies", Unwound cranks up the anxious energy, with Trosper's slice-and-dice guitar more agitated than ever. More unexpectedly compelling, though, is how they slow things down and stretch things out a bit, like on "Least Common Denominator", with its swaggering riffs and sense of texture, or the expansive "Lady Elect", which somehow transforms Unwound's atonal cadences into shimmery atmosphere and subliminal melody. And they're at their most experimental at that point on "Sensible", as a post-punk as post-rock dimension creeps in more prominently through Lund's precise jazz-like percussion, the dubby bass, and sound effects. Here and throughout Repetition, Unwound is comfortable taking seemingly opposing forces, then making that creative tension productive.
While No Energy's last disc is made up of the time-capsule ephemera and unreleased live recordings that typically fill out these projects, Unwound is one of those bands that gives you a glimmer of hope that there might just be something transcendent socked away in its vault, even if that never exactly turns out to be the case. In addition to the spruced up 7" version of "Corpse Pose", much of the last set consists of performance recordings that do confirm Unwound's status by capturing their spontaneity and ferocity as players. Such footnotes, even as footnotes, provide a testament to a band that makes you want to dig deep into the archives for more. If feeling that feeling is the real purpose of deluxe reissue packages in the age of Spotify and Amazon Prime, No Energy is worth whatever the cost.