In 2003, I heard a WUOG DJ spin "Terminus," a sidewinding cyclone of music that finds the nexus of knotty post-hardcore and string-swept post-rock over a euphoric, apocalyptic 10 minutes. A "Marquee Moon" for moshers and concert hall smashers alike. Unfortunately, Unwound is one of those bands that had just broken up as I'd gotten into them. (Mineral was another.)
A couple decades and four Numero Group box set reissues later, it's been thrilling to read reports of Unwound's recent reunion shows that have stretched from the west coast (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA) to the midwest (Chicago) to the east coast (New York and Philly). I'd never been to Philly's Union Transfer; it used to be a Spaghetti Warehouse, which checks out: tall ceilings, wooden bars, warehouse-style rafters (we had a Spaghetti Warehouse in Atlanta growing up… I once took a girlfriend there because I am fancy like that). I saw lots of old friends from my UGA/WUOG days (some of whom live in Philly now, others who traveled), plus Scott Hatch from Burnt Toast Vinyl. The vibes were up.
Here are some scattered thoughts on Unwound's March 15 show at Union Transfer:
The opening band, TEKE::TEKE, busted out a ballsy move by covering Unwound on the night of an Unwound gig. But I have to say, the surfy/funky Montreal psych-rock band put a slinky spin on "Corpse Pose" that was giving Björk. You can find a studio version of that cover on the Stars Rock Kill comp.
For a band that has not played in 21 years, Unwound has not missed a step. This is a chemistry built on easily tipoverable puzzle pieces, yet reinforced with a Brutalist architecture.
Friends all over all mentioned this, but I can't express what a joy it was to see teens and young 20-somethings mosh and crowd-surf to "New Energy," "Usual Dosage," "Laugh Track," "Corpse Pose" and, well, any twisted, screamy ruckus from the catalog. I took it all in from the balcony, with all of the other olds, observing the swarm and swell with a smile.
From what I can tell, Unwound played the same set list every night, which, as a younger person, I might have found uninspired, but there was a carefully curated narrative to the flow of songs. Sure, I would've loved to have seen "Terminus" live, but — much like Low's Double Negative tour — Unwound presented every song as a piece of the whole.
And, in fact, experiencing that back and forth in time made me realize how many bands/scenes were formed out of specific songs or even brief moments within them. Unwound's sound was restless — darting from proto-blackgaze and melody-rich noise-rock to doomy feedback drone and the next step in what Fugazi wrought — with a remarkably cohesive unease.
Something that never occurred to me until this show: Sara Lund is the melodic gravity of Unwound. Justin Trosper and Scott Seckington's forked guitar paths and Jared Warren's (stepping in for the late Vern Rumsey) high-necked bass grooves make Unwound's music move in oblong directions. Often, that means the drummer grounds the chaos. But instead, Lund plays her instrument like the secret frontperson, our focus naturally shifted to her tuneful drum fills and sharp sense of rhythm. It felt like a magic trick.
I wasn't prepared for my emotionally intense reaction to "Kantina / Was, Are and Was Or Is." I asked Justin Trosper about this pair of songs in 2015:
I guess this was our most cherished live number, and agreed, it was almost always nice to play. Vern's bass line was stolen from a Circus Lupus song (which was probably stolen from a Jesus Lizard song), but it still sounds like Vern Rumsey. He was like the less evil, more soulful and melodious version of David Sims. I suppose some of the appeal of the song is the "emo" aspect of the chorus build-up ("Wait!"). After all, the song was about total desperation, subsequent depression and the feeling of loss. Then we do the stoner-y Daydream Nation part at the end, which went on and on and usually was the right thing to do. It was the last song we ever played together.
So maybe a few shed tears were inevitable. As Justin noted, it's a song about desperation, depression and loss, but after the despondent arpeggios, the screamed chorus and frenzied scrapes of the fretboard, that long denouement captures a rapturous tension and release — the space after catharsis, when reality sets in and the next moves are unknown.
"It's too dark outside to be alive." —Lars Gotrich
Stream the Viking's Choice playlist via BNDCMPR. Follow my Bandcamp collection. Tracklist below:
Pry, "Of Spite"
Party Dozen, "Earthly Times (billy woods rework)"
World of Pleasure, "World War X"
Milford Graves, Arthur Doyle & Hugh Glover, "March 11, 1976 I"
Richard Youngs, "Modern Sorrow"
Lady Wray (feat. Ghostface Killah), "Piece of Me"
Incendiary, "Bite the Hook"
Lack of Knowledge, "The Men"
Josiah Steinbrick, "Tomorrow"
Cory Hanson, "Housefly"
Coro Qom Chelaalapi & Lagartijeando, "Cancion de Cuna"
Larry Norman, "Leave It Up to God to Handle"
The Dream Syndicate, "Some Kinda Itch (Live)"
80HD, "Goblin Mode"
View from the Soyuz, "Caligula"
xWeaponx, "Paid in Blood"
The F****** Champs, "Dale Bozzio"
Sadness, "lowsun in a glistening"
Turner Williams Jr., "Droplet"
Decadencia, "Antes del odio"
The Rule, "Of Magic & Muscle"
Talk West, "Willow and the Dogwood"
Olivier Alary, "Cendres (for 4 vibraphones and marimba)"
TEKE::TEKE, "Corpse Pose"
Unwound, "Kantina / Were, Are and Was or Is (Peel Session)"