November 21, 2014
Words: Adam Turner-Heffer
No reflection on ’90s indie classics is complete without mention of “the year that punk broke”. What’s often forgotten is the slow but seminal careers of DIY indie and hardcore bands that sowed the seeds for Nirvana‘s rise to prominence. From Sonic Youth to Germs, Black Flag, Descendants and many more, the Reagan-eighties played host to subversive-minded musicians in an industry otherwise controlled by greedy executives.
This portrait of a turbulent but influential underground scene in the ’80s is brilliantly captured by Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life. The 13 chapters are each dedicated to a band with the final chapter rightly housing Beat Happening. As well as being fascinating in their own right, Beat Happening played a key role in solidifying the DIY scene in Olympia, Washington and surrounding areas (i.e Portland and Seattle), in part thanks to lead vocalist Calvin Johnson’s label K Records. In the closing pages, a whole crop of bands that would become hugely elevated as a result of Nirvana’s success (e.g. Bikini Kill and Jawbreaker and Modest Mouse) are discussed but one that barely gets a mention, and to this date remains severely underrated, is Unwound.
Though the original members of Unwound – Justin Trosper (guitars, vocals) Vern Rumsey (bass) & Brandt Sandeno (drums) – had been playing on the scene since their high school days in previous band Giant Henry, when the explosion happened in 1991 they were still teenagers and not quite ready to ride the full effect of the blast. They didn’t grow into proper masters of their sound until a few years later. When the band started to hit its stride with new drummer Sara Lund around ’93/’94, grunge started to die down and this may explain their limited reach.
Unwound produced thrilling and innovate music throughout. Like Fugazi, neither band seemed to compromise on anything with their music, both working as tight units who wrote and recorded consistently, and stayed with a trusted label throughout. While in the early years Unwound sounded like a cross between Fugazi vocalist Guy Picciotto’s previous band Rites of Spring and Sonic Youth, as time went on they carved out a unique sound for themselves – with every record they released they got further and further away from their initial influences. Writing a record every winter, releasing in the spring and touring throughout the summer, a template that made the three musicians almost hypnotically tight. Strangely, the name Unwound would become more relevant with every passing year; all their music has an inherent tension to it – or as one of their song titles suggests a ‘Nervous Energy’ – but as they progressed their music got tighter, tenser, and darker until their final opus Leaves Turn Inside You.
The Numero group have done the world a favour with the decision to remaster, reissue and repackage their mesmerising back-catalogue. Collecting the band’s records chronologically into 4 box sets including the original sleeves, tour diaries and photos, and incredibly detailed and fascinating liner notes with interviews with the band members themselves, the releases are a thing of beauty. Starting with Kid Is Gone in 2013 and Rat Conspiracy earlier this year, Numero have just released the 3rd edition No Energy which collects two of their most important records and B-sides from their “middle period”. The fourth and final release Empire (which will drop in 2015) sees Unwound’s final two records boxed up.
To accompany the renewed attention I’ve written a chronological guide to the works of Unwound, sharing the joy of a band who have only recently started to get their due as cult heroes. In a cliché that goes back as far as the Velvet Underground, they are a band who make me want to pick up a guitar (bass in my case) and form a band, and after reading this, hopefully they’ll do the same for you.
Listen to this playlist compiling 10 of the best tracks and click next to check out the records individually.