Sunday, April 1, 2012

Unsane - Wreck

If you aren't paying attention, the words people usually use to describe Unsane could either be taken as a pejorative or a compliment. You often hear them mention how they haven't changed much since their first full length more than twenty years ago. Same mix of wildly distorted bass, slide guitar, harmonica, and glass gargling shouts. Same monosyllabic song titles. Same blood-spattered cover artwork. The key elements are all still there, yeah, but they've long since been refined to an painfully sharp point. I can't think of another band that oozes menace the way Unsane does. Not in that bullshit "tough guy hardcore band" sense and definitely not in the "Hail Satan" sense either. It's street level, matter-of-fact, fatalistic, and without any macho posturing. Unsane doesn't have to threaten to kick your ass, they just do.

From their first couple wall of noise records to their crusty, grimy mid-period era to now, Unsane has taken it's chances mostly with their production. Since reforming after singer/guitarist Chris Spencer was jumped and badly beaten in Austria, each record has had a different sound. Blood Run was a solid batch of tunes let down by some muddy production that blunted the effect. Even with headphones on it felt like I was listening to the album from the back of a large room. They came back a couple years later with Visqueen, a desert island disc for me and an absolute epic. The bass tone they got on that record... Jesus, listening to it still feels like someone went directly into the pleasure center of my brain and pushed the button marked "wreck some shit." It helped that the songwriting lived up to the power of the musicians: "Against The Grain," "Last Man Standing," "This Stops At The River," "Only Pain"... the whole thing is fucking mammoth. And this year they released Wreck. Sonically, it sounds closest to their fan favorite album Occupational Hazard: very unfussy production that doesn't attempt to gussy up or smooth out any rough edges. The band has gotten so tight at this point, as musicians and as songwriters, that they don't need anything extraneous to get their point across. Take "No Chance," a highlight of the new record. All it takes is letting the guitar drop out for a second or two at the 2:40 mark to let the feedback go to give it that extra oomph. The song would have been great without it but it's just a small choice to change things up that gives it something extra. You wouldn't have heard that moment in their earlier albums and it speaks to the confidence they have in what they do.

That attitude carries over to the rest of the record. With everything so tight and ticking along like clockwork, there isn't a whole lot to complain about. "Rat" starts things off with a chorus where Spencer screams "so unclean" but my noise-damaged ears heard as "sour cream." I'm still trying to convince myself that he isn't actually saying that, which makes the song unintentionally funny. I'll get over it. "Decay," "No Chance," "Pigeon," and "Ghost" are all vintage Unsane songs. Bassist Dave Curran takes over on lead vocals for "Stuck," a song that slows things down a bit to give some space to Spencer's slide guitar. It's more of a break-up song than the "dangers of urban living" stuff they're known for. Spencer's barks and shouts have always seemed somehow resigned to the violence they portray but Curran's whiskey-and-cigarettes voice sounds more bitter and weary as he chastises himself and pleads with his pill-popping girlfriend. They cap things off with a cover of the mighty Flipper's "Ha Ha Ha" that makes great use of Spencer's cynical faux laugh. It's a bang up cover that doesn't disrespect the original in the least. Having Spencer laughing at you as the song dissolves into shredding feedback is just about the most appropriate way possible to end the album.

I don't think Unsane has it in them to make a bad record. Not in the way that some bands do. They're so locked in to their style and so comfortable playing within those bounds that the only really worry would be repeating themselves but, more than twenty years into their career, they've long ago proved too smart for that. There aren't many bands left doing noise rock the way Unsane do. Most of the time, bands are taking more of a college educated weird-beard-and-tight-pants hipster approach to the genre. That leaves Unsane to do what they've always done and done well: make well-constructed, unpretentious, menacing rock music that takes zero shit from anyone. And I'm damn thankful for it.

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