special introductory paragraph
The Peel Sessions EP
Scattered, Smothered & Covered
Attack in Japan
Coextinction 1 EP
Unsane is like the third or fourth greatest band of all time and it’s a damn shame they haven’t received more recognition. The group managed to combine a brutal, noisy approach with extremely hooky songs without placating the brainless NYHC, aggro Pantera/Machine Head or “yo-yo-homie” nu-metal crowds.
Overall their sound didn’t change much and the only emotions they seem to display are pissed off, angry and depressed. It’s like they managed to maintain the Damaged vibe for their entire career. Yep, there ain’t much “light” in the group’s repertoire but what other band could make expressing negative emotion in a yucky, post-industrial world so much fun?
I mean, how serious can they really be considering all of their albums have really violent covers and names like Total Destruction, Scattered, Smothered & Covered and Occupational Hazard? Um, I don’t know actually! How does singer/guitarist Chris Spencer maintain such a level of intensity over the course of all of these albums? And, more importantly, why isn’t Spencer more widely acknowledged for his mighty guitar skill on that old, beat-up telecaster? He’s been doing some mighty awesome stuff with Unsane, the Cutthroats 9 and Celan for years… maybe I’ll write about those as well…
Unsane – Matador – 1991
Who the hell needs subtlety?
It’s hard to believe that these heavy, noise rock peddlers were signed to the same label that gave us Superchunk and Pavement. I suppose then it’s not hard to believe that, while Matador did full scale catalog reissues for Superchunk and Pavement, they left the first three Unsane albums non-remastered and non-reissued, thus making it a bitch to find Unsane and Singles 89-92 for reasonable prices on any format! Fuck you, Matador! Unsane is actually still together and crankin’ out the good tunes! Where the hell are your super cool and hip indie all stars? You don’t give Unsane super deluxe, double CD reissues with a loaded 36 page booklet!
Unsane hale from the icky side of Manhattan right around the time it started to get just a little bit safer and yuppified but not too much so that you could still sense these guys came from a dark place full of bums, drug addicts and other assorted nogoodniks. And I believe that cover photo is the real deal. The group’s original lineup consisted of Chris Spencer on guitar and vocals, Pete Shore on bass and Charlie Ondras on drums. Unfortunately Ondras would leave the world of the living the year after this album was released and Shore would leave the band a couple years after that.
Without a doubt Unsane is the rawest and dirtiest of all of the group’s albums. Spencer has already achieved that fantastic guitar tone which is primarily what makes the album sound so raw and dirty! On later albums, the distorted, power-chord driven riffs would sound a bit more controlled but on Unsane, it sounds like a mess of hardcore-ish riffs, bluesy solos and hella awesome feedback! That overall looser feeling is also helped by Ondras’ tribal rhythms, which aren’t as propelling as those of his replacement Vinnie Signorelli. Pete Shore ain’t no slouch either with his awesome bulldozer bass! It should also be noted that the songs on Unsane are the least “normal” in terms of structure. A lot of later Unsane tunes actually sound more accessible with your verse, chorus and guitar solos but on Unsane, the songs have, what seems to be, a repetitive industrial influence – and this is still a guitar/bass/drums band – that drills the riffs and melodies into your cranium!
This is some heavy, noisy sheeyit! The first thing you might think to yourself is that it’s hard to tell the songs apart. Yes, it’s true. They all sound the same upon first listen. On most of these songs, Spencer just yells everything at the top of his lungs; the one exception being the song “Action Man”, which is the only quintessentially “fun” song on the album. Don’t get me wrong; I think they’re all fun but it’s the only one with a “yeah!” vibe rather than a “arrrghgghh, fuck you, fuckin’ world!!!” vibe. I should also stress that either Spencer isn’t the only singer on the album or that he sings in a lower register on a couple of these. Favorites? Although I like ’em all, “Cut” and “White Hands” stand out as particularly awesome pieces of angry sludge-grunge.
As for what the songs are about:
“I’m alive, I’m doing just fine
I’ll admit, I was losing my mind
I’m alive and I’m doing just fine
As for you, you’re the one standing naked this time”
“Once again I am faced with conflict
Another challenge of life I will test
I am changing, I am changing
All who I am”
Actually, I was under the impression that all of the lyrics pretty much are like the ones above but then I did a google search and discovered that “Exterminator” actually has ugly, horrific science fiction lyrics! Check out these bad boys!
“Gun metal skies, broken lives
Claustrophobic concrete, English high rise
Exterminate the underclass, Exterminate the telepaths
Incubating ultraviolence, psychic distortions
slow death injectible, narcosis terminal
Damaged receptors, fractured speech.”
Singles 89-92 – Matador – 1992
Although it’s a singles collection, the fact that there are eleven unique songs that are not on any other studio album makes me consider Singles 89-92 the second official Unsane LP, even if the material was pulled from various sources. And, as one would expect from a singles compilation, the sound quality is all over the place from the wonderfully dirty and distorted to an almost impenetrable wall of static. But the same principle tenets that existed on the first album exist for this one as well.
It’s lo-fi, ugly, noisy sludge with a lot of incomprehensible yelling on top. The album has 13 songs. “Vandal-X” appeared on the first Unsane album, “Blood Boy” appears on the record twice and “4 Sticks” is a Zeppelin cover. Thank you, the end!
Okay, I’ll say some more about it. The songs on Singles 89-92 come from the same pool as those on Unsane so don’t expect any artistic growth. Just expect that dirty ass guitar tone, lots of feedback, hardcore-ish riffs, noisy blues solos and tribal drumming but especially so on the wickedly awesome opening track “Burn”, which although repetitive is super addictive, catchy and hypnotic.
Like on the first album, the songs rely on industrial-like repetition to drive the songs into your brain and also, like on the first album, almost none of Spencer’s lyrics are easy to understand except for maybe the part in “Vandal-X” where he goes, “I’m a piece of shit like you” and in drug addict lament and possibly most driving energetic song they’d yet done “Concrete Bed” where he says, “he wasn’t always this way.”
Also enjoy the seconds of delightful feedback at the end of “Streetsweeper” followed by a cheering crowd and Spencer thanking said crowd. Speaking of feedback, several of the songs might border on unlistenable to the normal ear but nothing degenerates into pure noise. Hard to believe that those are actually kind of surfy riffs and neat little harmonic tricks being pulled off in “Jungle Music.” Also dig the galloping drum rolls in “Blood Boy.”
Total Destruction – Matador/Atlantic – 1993
I find it pretty funny that when Atlantic agreed to distribute some of Matador’s albums in an attempt to market the “indie” and “alternative” groups to the mainstream, Matador gave them Total Destruction. Maybe Atlantic thought they had another Meantime on their hands but nooope!
As mentioned above, original drummer Charlie Ondras passed away and in his place is former Swans and Foetus drummer Vincent Signoreli, who’s playing is definitely tighter and more traditional. But that’s not to say he doesn’t pull off seem neat tricks; in fact he’s doing a lot of crazy snare hits in most of the songs. He’s just not as all over the place as Ondras.
The immediate difference you should notice between the group’s first album(s) and Total Destruction is that there is waaay less feedback, making the songs easier to tell apart and enjoy individually. Don’t get me wrong; this is still far from radio friendly music that normal people will like. It’s still ugly and noisy but the group seems more in control of the noise. So now all you have standing in the way of these really great heavy rock tunes is the lo fi indie level production. As much as I revel in the ugly, repetitive attack of each song, I can’t help but think they lack a certain power and, ya know, oompf! The angry vocals are buried and the drums sound a little muffled.
I was initially going to say that Spencer’s vocals are easier to understand this time around but, in all honesty, as I listened to this album for review, I realized, I couldn’t understand most of them and goddamn google lyric search was no help. But one song that I have no trouble understanding is the pounding opening track “Body Bomb”, a disturbing account of a nut job who straps a bomb to himself and blows up a building. The song just keeps going “duh-duh-duh-duh DUMB-DUMB” along with bluesy licks that help build the tension but give no payoff, making the concept that much more disturbing since we know how the story will end.
In most of the songs I have certain ideas of what they’re supposed to be about like I think “Road Trip” is a first person account of some creep who treats some lady like garbage and she takes his abuse and I think “Black Book” is about some guy discovering some lady he knows in porn mags. The rest just seem to generally express negativity or as this lyric from “S.O.S.” states: “it’s all the same shit, look around/it’s all the same shit coming down.”
The songs on Total Destruction alternate between the aforementioned pounding sludge and more energetic tunes meant to make you rock out. You will find tons of great repetitive but catchy riffs created from the simplest of hardcore-meets-hard-rock power chord combinations, awesome blues solos and super fun, busy drumming. And let’s not forget the hooky bass line in the song “Dispatched”!
Wow, I just check allmusic.com to see if what they said about Total Destruction was at all like what I said and here’s what the genius John Bush had to say: “Less compelling than the singles collection, Total Destruction is too repetitive, though the band has slowed down the rhythms a bit.” What a fucker!
The Peel Sessions EP – Matador – 1994
Hell freakin’ yeah! Why couldn’t Unsane record their entire first album and Singles 89-92 at John Peel’s studio? Then maybe it would have sounded like the lo-fi, noisy, indie treat it should have rather than the nearly impenetrable walls of feedback or, for that matter, the power-lacking production of Total Destruction. This E.P. features the first two Unsane lineups; the one with Charlie Ondras on drums and the one with his replacement Vinnie Signorelli. The first five songs are from the original and the next four are from the second. But for some reason the band stuff “Organ Donor”, “Street Sweeper”, “Jungle Music” and “Exterminator” into one 11 minute track.
Of the nine tunes four of them come from Unsane, two from Singles 89-92 and three from Total Destruction. And they all sound AWESOME especially “Body Bomb” and “Black Book”! Spencer’s tone is dirty and ugly but not super heavy and as mentioned, the production is clear yet remains gritty enough to maintain the Unsane feel. It’s a shame that the albums surrounding this release didn’t have the same level of clarity because they would have sounded fantastic.
Now then, I’m a huge fan of every lineup of the group and while the later Dave Curran/Vinnie Signorelli formation is tighter, there is an intriguing quality to this earlier, rawer material from the Pete Shore/Charlie Ondras lineup. Spencer’s guitar approach hasn’t changed all that much except in later, years he learned to play more melodic stuff but here he just plays pissed off, hardcorish riffs with bluesy solos and the structures are more repetitive. As mentioned above, Charlie Ondras has a crazy, nearly indescribable, tribal drumming style, which gives Unsane a looser feel than they would have when Signorelli took over. But even the songs Signorelli plays on maintain some of that early, primal, repetitive approach to a degree; maybe it’s because those songs were played with the original lineup in mind. I dunno. It’s still hard to tell what Chris Spencer is saying when he shouts his lyrics through that distortion pedal since they’re still a little too low in the mix but I was able to make out a few more lines in “Black Book.” I still can’t tell quite exactly what that songs about. But that is one spastic shouting session on “Bath.” I can’t tell if that’s Chris with another person or if he recorded multiple vocal tracks.
Scattered, Smothered & Covered – Amphetamine Reptile – 1995
YYYESSSS!!! This is the first Unsane album I’d ever heard and after about two or three listens, I knew I was going to be a fan. You may think I’m full of shit but I consider Scattered, Smothered & Covered to be Unsane’s Ace of Spades. Don’t get me? Just like the most popular of all Motorhead albums, Scattered, Smothered & Covered beautifully defines exactly what the group’s about in twelve, succinct, perfectly crafted songs without a dull moment over the course of the album’s 35 minute run time. And just like in the case of Ace of Spades, I was confused at first. I didn’t “get it.” The opening track and, incidentally, most popular of all Unsane tunes, “Scrape” seemed so silly to me when I first heard it and not strictly because of its awesome, cheaply shot music video of kids hurting themselves on skateboards! The main riff is essentially a hardcore riff played slowly while some guy angrily yells at you through a distortion pedal. Can you imagine if Minor Threat played “Straight Edge” slowly while Ian yelled at you through a distortion pedal? Nobody would hear of it!
Original bassist Pete Shore inexplicably left the band and was replaced by Dave Curran thus making Chris Spencer the group’s only original member. However the Spencer/Curran/Signoreli lineup remains intact to this very day (albeit with a brief hiatus between 2000 and 2003)! Now you’re probably wondering what makes Scattered, Smothered & Covered so unique and why I rate it as Unsane’s greatest album, and ultimately, one of the greatest heavy rock albums of all time. The typical Unsane components are intact; Chris Spencer’s guitar tone is beautiful, noisy, filthy and LOUD and, as mentioned above, he angrily shouts at you through a distortion pedal pretty much the entire time. However the rhythm section sounds exceptionally tight this time around and the production is fantastic for this type of music! Every bit comes through yet it still sounds distorted and mean and the snare hits sound awesome! They pop so loud!
But good production and tone only take you so far. Without great songs, it don’t mean a thing. And daaaamn are these awesome songs! The aforementioned “Scrape” gets the old blood pumping the moment that first bitter chord is struck and then Spencer double tracks it with a neat bluesy lick before the breakdown during the bridge followed by shouts of “SCRAPE!!! I SCRAPE!!!” I still have no idea what the song is about; skateboarding?
And the album doesn’t let up; from then on in, second track, the almighty “Alleged”, which I first heard on the Tromeo and Juliet soundtrack, leads in with the bass playing the brooding riff and Spencer on mouth-harp before the guitar pummels you into submission. Plus, you can actually understand the lyrics: “Get out, some people live in this place/ my block, can you guess my race/ stuck up, he got hit on the ground/ come here, we’re going down town.” That don’t sound too friendly, do it?
I could describe every track for you but, as usual, that would be tedious. The reason these songs are immediately so enjoyable is that, 1. they primarily follow a normal song structure so they become easily memorable and 2. they’re loaded with energy even for mid tempo songs. They’re full of Spencer’s mean hardcore-crossed-with-classic-heavy-rock-inspired riffs and bluesy solos. Plus Spencer’s playing has so much dramatic tension and payoff yet is all blue collar and economical. Curran and Signoreli do some crazy stuff as well; most of it involves pummeling bass riffs and tons of unexpected fills. Yet it doesn’t become over-indulgent.
As I just said, the songs are crafted perfectly. Some of them, such as “Get off My Back” – which contains only one line – and “Swim” – with the cheery lyric, “I watch you drowning, saw you look my way/it’s all people stay for, to watch someone pass away” – are downright slow and sludgy. But most rock to some mid tempo beat. And you just gotta hear the hatred stuffed into that riff in “Empty Cartridge” or the awesome pummeling of “Ruin” with sample lyric, “I kicked the door wide open/ I took a whack to the head/ it looked like three steps backward/ it was only one step ahead.” It don’t sound much meaner than that, that’s for sure!
Attack in Japan – SPV – 1996
I don’t know how important it is for you to read about an out of print live album that you would have to purchase via import from a German distributor just to get a hold of, but I feel a heavy burden lifted and a hole in my life filled now that I’ve finally heard and am able to review the Unsane live CD, Attack in Japan. What’s that? You already downloaded it? Show me because I sure as heck wasn’t able to and because of this technological handicap, spent 16 USD for a format 99.999999% of the world doesn’t use anymore.
Recorded live on April 12, 1995 at the Shinjuku Loft in Tokyo, Japan, Unsane perform one song from Unsane, three from Singles 89-92, three from Total Destruction and four from their latest, greatest LP, Scattered, Smothered & Covered. The sound on this live recording freakin’ rules! Spencer’s guitar tone is low-endy, noisy and grungy to the max and both bass and drums come through with all the power needed to drive these noise/grunge classics into yo’ freakin’ face! For some reason whenever I think of Unsane performing live, I always get a picture in my mind that they’re playing in a warehouse or factory, with chains hanging from metal beams and boxes scattered about. Tis this heavy, urban tone that the group gives off, I think!
Some noteworthy chestnuts include the awesome between song feedback and percussion warm ups – such as the neat tipping-tapping on the rim at the beginning of “4-Stix”; the latter give the impression that the band is sorta counting off while looking at each other and getting ready for the correct moment to launch into the next song.
Lessee, what else is there to talk about that hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere on this page? On a couple songs, especially “Scrape” and “Body Bomb”, Chris Spencer sounds like he’s really straining when shouting at the top of his lungs (i.e. “I’M PROOUUUUUUUD!!!!”).
In non-vocal related matters, before performing “Straight” the sound system plays the Taxi Driver sound bite where Martin Scorsese tells Travis Bickel his disturbing plot to get revenge on his wife. There’s another soundbite that plays during “Exterminator” but I couldn’t identify what it was though it sounded like it was from some cheesy, old kung fu movie.
I guess another interesting thing to mention is how Vinnie Signoreli handles the drums for songs which he didn’t initially play on. The most noticeable difference is that for closing track “Exterminator”, Signoreli plays the beat straight as opposed to the more pounding, tribal fashion in which Charlie Ondras played it. Also the track is stretched out to an uncharacteristically long nine minutes due to an extended, fun and tiring noise jam. Also “Swim” sounds particularly sludgy on this recording.
My only beef with the CD is that there are fade outs between a few songs. I’m to wager the live performance was a bit longer than the 45 minute running time of the CD and either there were financial restraints in getting the entire live performance on tape or some of the other songs were recorded too poorly for commercial release. I mean we can’t all be Negative Approach and release a whole bunch of live tunes that were recorded on a boom box ya know?
Amrep Christmas – Man’s Ruin – 1997
I’m not sure why Unsane released their Amphetamine Reptile Christmas party live performance on Man’s Ruin or why they felt the need to release two live albums in a row, but I’m glad they did because Amrep Christmas is an enjoyable, good time of a live album with excellent sound, tight performances and a cheery atmosphere. You see, Chris Spencer, Dave Curran and Vinnie Signoreli play angry, hateful music but they’re having fun doing it; as evidenced by Dave Curran who responds with an “all right!” to a female audience member who screams at the beginning of the set. Other clever stage banter includes, “we’re the Unsane from New York”, “thank you! thanks a lot!” and “since this won’t be a record, we’re gonna have some fun” before they do “Four Sticks.” – which is strange because it became a record – But either way, what do you want? These are blue collar rockers who don’t need to waste your time with idiotic, between song jibber-jabber.
The band play six from Scattered, Smothered & Covered, two from Total Destruction, one from Singles 89-92 – the cover of Zeppelin’s “4 Sticks” if you were wondering – , one from the not yet existing fourth album Occupational Hazard and TWO songs that are completely unique to this release. One of those is an awesome run-through of Cows classic “Hitting the Wall” during the encore with the Cows joining them onstage so that doesn’t really count as an Unsane song. The other song, “No Soul”, does count as a completely original tune that you will find absolutely nowhere else in the group’s catalog!!! What a fuckin’ tease; knowing, as a hardcore fan, that there is ONE fucking song floating around on some obscure live album that went out of print not long after it was released. Anyway, it sounds like an Unsane tune; heavy, chord driven riff, bluesy guitar solo and yelling.
Aside from few seconds of warming up to “Out”, the group plays every song album perfect. Well, not totally. Spencer throws in a few neck slides on “Out” but otherwise, the songs are played the same way. The sound is fantastic; live and completely clear with the same wonderful, filthy guitar tone that you would hear on Scattered, Smothered & Covered and the same powerful snare hits.
Occupational Hazard – Relapse – 1998
Following in the footsteps of their homeboy Steve “Today Is The Day” Austin, the Unsane crew left their safe, relyable home at AmRep for the big, mean corporate world of Relapse. And, similarly to Today Is the Day, somewhat metalled up their sound in the process.
It took me a bit longer to get into Occupational Hazard because the qualities that made Scattered, Smothered and Covered so immediately enjoyable were absent from this album. Unlike that previous record, there are no comparable songs to”Scrape”, “Alleged” or “Ruin”, songs that pretty much hit you with simple structures and catchy riffs.
You sort of have to listen to the songs a few times for them to sink in and this is because they’re almost all slower, heavier and less reliant on immediate impact! No, don’t sweat it, they haven’t gone all Neurosis on your ass. This is still Unsane and all thirteen songs dance around the three minute mark; they’re still rock songs with beginning, middle and end.
Spencer still plays catchy riffs and the group is tight as a mofo with neatly wrapped up songs that have all the “fat cut out.” It’s just that almost all of them move at a snail’s pace and only the song “Scam” pounds out a basic drumer pattern. This album isn’t mellower, mind you. In fact, as alluded to before, Spencer’s tone is wickedly heavy. It’s just that the aggression and brutallity bleed out slowly rather than pummeling you in concentrated doses. There are also some beautiful feedback squeals between the riffs as well.
The overall lack of variety – that is, hearing one dead man’s crawl after another – makes the album feel longer than its 40 minute run time. But that doesn’t stop Spencer from churning those catchy as hell, heavy, thick brutal riffs one after another along with those angry blues licks while screaming at the top of his lungs through a distortion pedal.
Furthermore the band is on fiiiya as Vinnie Signorelli mostly refrains from 4/4 beats in favor of oddly-timed patterns; “Humidifier” is particularly herky-jerky and that’s good! Plus, rapid-fire, snare-filled opener “Committed” sorta gives you a false energetic charge before everything slows the hell down. But again, I don’t want this to sound negative. I like Occupational Hazard a lot. I’m just saying they could have varied the approaches on each song ever so slightly like they did on the previous release.
And now that I’ve done a serviceable job describing the music, let’s discuss the lyrics. For the first time ever, Unsane have included a lyrics sheet with the CD so we get to see what’s on the mind of Chris Spencer and possibly Dave Curran since his lower, scratchier voice is present at points on the album as well.
“Need for correction
I stand with a gun in my hand
it’s time for inspection
wipe off the blood on ya hand” (killing)
“Taken by threat
Lost all the choices you had
Taken not yet
Put out, you can” (rape?)
“I’m not telling, caught selling
can’t wait til this gets out of hand
I’m not copping, caught stopping
Just making the best way I can” (drug dealers)
“No way – I’ll take to you
It stains – the Brooklyn zoo
The hard way – it screws you too
Ya sorry – just what to” (are they trying to be Biohazard or something?)
“No way to shout
There’s nothing you can do now
You can’t find out
Caught where the air can taint you
Can’t breathe, this air is thick
It’s not free, it makes me sick” (is that supposed to be a an environmental message?)
Blood Run – Relapse – 2005
In spite what seemed like a seven year gap between albums, Chris Spencer and Dave Curran moved their base of operation to San Francisco for a few years and started the Cutthroats 9, a band who, by all intents and purposes, sounded almost exactly like Unsane.
But, after one and a half awesome albums (The Cutthroats 9 and the Anger Management EP), Spencer and Curran hooked back up with Vinnie Signorelli and here we are in the middle of the aughts with another heavy, noisy and mean Unsane album.
Do you like diversity? Unlike the last album, Blood Run varies up the approaches while remaining unmistakably Unsane. The familiar components are there and the tone is still Relapse-metal heavy but, unlike Occupational Hazard, where most of the songs were sludgy and snail paced, the songs on Blood Run alternate a bit. Also Spencer is trying all kinds of new tricks on his guitar; string scrapings and weird harmonic things which I forgot the names of but Killdozer did on one of their songs. That last one is a really neat effect which makes the string go “ping” if you get what I’m saying. And, for the first time ever, in the song “D-Train”, Unsane actually play at normal, headbanger speed, so even mainstream metalheads can get into it.
Most of the other songs will be familiar territory; you’ve pretty much heard them do most of this shit before but, and this is why I call Unsane the Motorhead of whatever specific sub-sub-genre of noise rock/metal they embody. They do what they do so well, so tightly and so economically that you feel that no matter how familiar their style is, you still want to hear more. At the end of the day, Unsane is a rock ‘n’ roll band. Their songs are compact, mostly three minute, rock tunes, whether they’re played slowly or mid-tempo or whether they played with a normal 4/4 beat or some oddly timed, herky jerky drum beat. Spencer has mastered his unique guitar approach; heavy, chord-based and full of classic-sounding bluesy solos with no palm-muted, “jugga-jugga” riffs.
While I’m listening in real time, I’ll briefly describe the album’s flow song by song; mid-tempo heavy rock with simple yet catchy riff, twisty rhythm with pounding chords like Helmet, sludgy with really angry note-riff similar to the earlier song “Empty Cartridge” but with bluesy slides, bluesy sludge-metal, another twisty rhythm like Helmet with aforementioned guitar string scratching, slow song with dirty bluesy tone, aggressive pounding rocker with aforementioned uptempo 4/4 beat during chorus, mid tempo rocker with slightly melodic leads, sad song with more bluesy slide guitar, pissed-off pounding tune with string scrapings and harmonics and, finally, a lengthy, repetitive and noisy sludge song cleverly titled “Dead Weight” which is not unlike the Cutthroats 9 song “Sludge.”
It’s also notable that Dave Curran sings quite a lot on Blood Run. It’s very easy to tell their voices apart. Spencer yells in a higher register while Curran has this lower, horse, phlegmy cigarette voice that’s really cool! Lyrically Spencer and/or Curran angrily deal with personal topics of anguish and pain often involving lost friends – a couple to drugs. But, if I’m not mistaken, “Make Them Prey” is about 9/11. What exactly is it saying? Is the word “sanctuary” supposed to have a double meaning as in “sanctuary from the attackers” and “sanctuary for Muslims”? Hmm, you tell me!
Stop stalling, don’t stray
Stop bawling, I know you’re prey
The cloud has fallen, the smoke won’t play
I hear them calling, you’ll make them pray
All I need is sanctuary, all I want is sanctuary
All I need is sanctuary, all I want is sanctuary
It’s calling, we’ll pay
this bus is crawling, try not to stay
that building’s falling, just watch that plane
It’s all here, you’ll make them pray
Visqueen – Ipecac – 2007
That’s a pleasant image.
“Against the Grain”, the opening track on the sixth full length (seventh if you count Singles 89-92) Unsane LP Visqueen is possibly the most depressing song in the group’s entire catalog. It starts off with this incredibly sad, minor-note melody played on a non-distorted guitar accompanied by some bottle-necking before the pummeling starts. The song is pretty slow but the music combined with Spencer’s sorrowful shouting without a distortion pedal evoke that dreadful feeling of emotional loss and regret and that somehow things could have been different. I don’t know if it’s a lost relationship, a person that died from a drug overdose or some other situation that could have been salvaged but wasn’t. Here are the lyrics, what do you think?
I saw the things that could be
and now they’re come to stay
You know that I can’t take this
I can’t watch this thrown away
It’s not the things you told me
it’s not the times we stayed
I know I fucked up
I can’t make this go away
She kneels to pray
Things gone astray
Against the grain
It wasn’t what it should be
It wasn’t all the ways
I would not watch what’s coming
now I know it comes my way
and now we lost it all
and all the times it could have stayed
We know that we fucked up
and now I know there’s just no way
I’m counting all the ways
it’s sitting in today
you say there is no way
it was against the grain
Anyway, it’s a standout and shows that the group can still build upon their noisy, heavy sound so late in the game. The rest of the album, however, delivers more o’ those good ‘n’ heavy tunes you come to expect from these guys. The group varies up the tones and approaches on Visqueen similarly to how they did on Blood Run but the big difference is that the album seems to be a bit more melancholy rather than flat-out pissed and there are definitely more slow tunes. But that doesn’t stop the songs “Last Man Standing”, “Shooting Clay”, “Eat Crow”, “This Stops at the River”, “Line on the Wall” and “Disdain” from being the angry, pummeling tunes you’ve come to expect from this group.
Spencer’s heavy-simple-chord-meets-blues-solos approach is top notch of course and the the rhythm section is as tight, aggressive, technically proficient yet economic as always. On several songs, Spencer makes copious use of those awesome bluesy slides as he did on “Against the Grain.” On “This Stops at the River”, he even throws on that mouth harp atop the familiar pounding riffs. “Only Pain” is another incredibly depressing song in the vein of “Against the Grain.” It’s also possibly the most melodic song in the group’s catalog; not the singing mind you, just the minor note melodies that Spencer is playing. Oh and on “Line in the Wall”, Dave Curran’s bass is so fucking heavy and grinding that it reminds of that time I thought it would be hilarious to put my car in park while it was still moving and listened to the gears go “grk-grk-grk-grk.”
The album ends, for the third straight time if you count The Cutthroats 9, with a repetitive piece of noisy, heavy sludge. This one is called “East Broadway” and incorporates industrial-like clanking. My take is that it’s supposed to evoke the gritty feel of riding a subway. If only it were 1988 again and such a thing were actually gritty. Or maybe there’s an extra level of meaning I’m missing.
Coextinction 1 E.P. – Coextinction – 2010
Get all the Coextinctions if you’re into heavy, noisy rock. They have at least 10 now and I have the first four. Through these I was introduced to a band called Goes Cube, who I’d never heard but really like, Shrinebuilder, a supergroup featuring Scott Kelly, Scott Weinrich, Al Cisneros and Dale Crover and Pigs, a Dave Curran side project. Anyway Unsane introduce the series with the first downloadable E.P., which contains three brand new songs.
“Pigeon” and “Grind” predict the less heavy approach of the group’s next album, Wreck; especially since “Pigeon” would appear on the album. These are typical Unsane songs; “Pigeon” is slow and depressing and “Grind” is more energetic and pounding. As for the third song, “No Dice”, I can’t help but feel a little ripped off for spending the $4 to download this E.P. since the song is just another noisy, slow, two-chord sludge tune. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a sucker for sludge and love that low, heavy earth-tone supplemented by copious amounts of feedback. But, come on, they could have written this “song” in their sleep.
By the way, Goes Cube is awesome! They mix the noisy, pounding Unsane twisty-rhythm and shouting at the top of the lungs approach with wussier emo parts and straight forward metal. You’s gotta hear ’em!
Wreck – Alternative Tentacles – 2012
Ten new songs and one of those is a cover and the other appeared on a non-album release. So really Unsane offer up eight new songs. “Pigeon” is from the Coextinction 1 E.P. and “Ha Ha Ha” is a Flipper cover. But that’s okay! I mean, I guess reusing the song “Pigeon” is what it is. Why not include the other two Coextinction songs and make the album have a total of 12, eh? On the other hand, just like the Melvins did with “Sacrifice”, Unsane take the classic, noise punk tune, slow it down, heavy it up and make it rule even more than it already did. See, Flipper is awesome but it’s a lot of fun hearing different kinds of bands you also like cover their songs. In both the case of the Melvins and Unsane, their covers are better in my humble opinion and isn’t that what you read this for? The only complaint I have, albeit minor, is that Chris Spencer replaces the smart-ass cynicism of the original – where Will Shatter makes fun of common suburbanite drones – with angry, distorted shouting. In fact, it’s the only song on Wreck where Spencer puts distortion on his vocals. Also, he replaces the word “gushy” with “stupid” in the line “get all gushy and wet” for some reason.
In between Visqueen and this here LP, Wreck, Chris Spencer teamed up with Niko Wenner from Oxbow and Ari Benjamin from Einstürzende Neubauten in the band Celan, who put out an excellent L.P. entitled Halo. I don’t know why I mentioned that since it’s completely unrelated to what we’re talking about.
Anyway, Unsane are back with another album! It’s their first in five years! And as previously mentioned, the facade that the album Wreck has ten new songs is destroyed by the mention that one of those had already existed on an earlier release and one is a cover. The other eight? Hmm, well… there’s a ballad on here. I don’t mean a slow song like “Against the Grain” or the two sad songs on this album. I mean a full-on ballad that spends its first minutes entirely light and mellow with country-ish slides as Spencer attempts to sing. It’s called “Stuck” and is about the narrator dealing with his pill-addicted, female friend so it probably comes from a real place. And I’m not opposed to bands trying entirely new things they’ve never done before but damn, Spencer’s voice isn’t pretty! Thankfully the ballad gets loud during the chorus and gets heavy by the end as these heavy rock ballads tend to do.
And the rest of the record is Unsane like clockwork except the tone on Wreck isn’t as heavy and punishing as it was on the previous three albums and the bass seems to be at the exact level as the guitar. So when the guitar isn’t distorted, which it is not quite as often on Wreck as earlier albums, you get to hear the bass rumbling loudly and beautifully. Also, I should mention that the drum sound on here is killer! Those snare hits sound almost exactly like the ones on Never Mind the Bollocks… just a very thick “thop” sound that, as far as I gather, is not an easy sound to achieve. So don’t downplay the importance of good sounding drums; they can make a band sound very tight and powerful.
As far as the songs themselves, there aren’t any changes or things different from anything the group has done before aside from the aforementioned ballad and cover. I could be mistaken though; there might be a drum pattern or time signature used on Wreck that wasn’t used prior. But, I guess the question remains; is it good? Well, yeah, of course it is. It’s an Unsane record and pretty much 99.999999% of their songs are satisfying, angry rock tunes. Let me clarify this for the gazillionth time; THEY’RE A FUCKING ROCK BAND WHO ROCKS!!! They’re not experimental like the Melvins or Neurosis; they just blast out riff after satisfying riff in tight, compactly arranged tunes. Chris Spencer plays angry blues licks and chord driven riffs like a pro but, for some reason, decided to shout his lyrics distortion-free so he just sounds like a pissed off dude; same with Dave Curran who also sounds like a pissed off dude but with a lower, scratchier voice.
But if you want me to fully categorize the ten songs, we have “Rats”, “Metropolis”, “Ghost” and “Roach”, which are angry, pounding tunes with oddly timed beats – one in 5/4 and one in 3/4, I think and two of those are very tom heavy. We have “Decay” and “Pigeon”, songs that are slow and depressing. And we have “No Chance” and “Don’t”, mid-tempo pummel rock, one of which has a harmonica in it.
And that about covers it. As of this writing Chris Spencer has put Unsane on another hiatus in order to bring us another Cutthroats 9 record. I’m pretty stoked for that, I’d say.