Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Unwound’s The Future Of What.
Anniversary Records: Unwound – The Future Of What
by Chad Jewett
The Future Of What begins with a 110-second burst and ends with a winding, 8-minute epic. Between those two poles, the album – the fifth and one of the absolute best from Olympia post-hardcore greats Unwound – is constantly balancing the rousing attack of “New Energy” and the arty ambition of “Swan”. What makes the album essential, and as worthy of revisiting as any record from a period in post-hardcore already rife with masterpieces (Yank Crime, Red Medicine, The Lurid Traversal of Route 7, Manic Compression) is the fact that The Future Of What so often layers rather than divides those different approaches to punk rock. Even at its most cerebral, the album has a wild energy. Even at its most whittled and explosive, songs buzz with ideas and fine-grained experimentation. The Future Of What is a record that finds real excitement in the heady work of redefining hardcore and its orbits.
The album was released in April of 1995 (thus celebrating its 20th anniversary now), between 1994’s New Plastic Ideas and 1996’s Repetition, placing it right in the middle of a 34-month run that is just about unprecedented in punk music outside of the cross-Atlantic marathons that The Ramones and The Clash ran in the late 70s. Understanding The Future Of What as the center between New Plastic Ideas and Repetition also underlines how easy it is to hear the album as a pivot point. One is tempted to approach LP as the moment where Justin Trosper, Sara Lund, and Vern Rumsey first began to truly approach hardcore as something that could be challenging, oblique, concept-rich. There’s a certain logic to that; even if there isn’t a whole lot separating Repetition barn-burners like “Message Received” or “Murder Movies” (itself a near-perfect song) from similar moments on New Plastic Ideas, there remains an intangible aura – call it a mystique, a new intellectual caginess – that first surfaced on Future. Suddenly, there was something boiling beneath the band’s sharp, stylized clatter. Even without the convenient narrative arcs, that thrill of discovery is still cut into the wax of The Future Of What.
“New Energy” begins the album with lean angularity, Trosper’s guitar cutting diagonally over Rumsey’s grinding bass and a drum part from Lund that manages to both roll in free-form momentum while accenting each guitar jab. Trosper’s vocal is fanged and thrilling, biting into the song’s circular refrain (“Where’s your energy? / There’s no energy / Where’s your energy? / There’s no energy”) with the same relish with which he attacks the song’s jagged chords. Like so much of the album, “New Energy” is a galvanizing mini-cyclone that doesn’t so much camouflage its ingenuity as make it work towards the song’s general, thrashing spirit. It’s hard not to think of the similarly immolating mission-statement of The Blood Brothers’ “Guitarmy” (fellow Evergreen State-ers) when listening to an opener as exciting as “New Energy”.
The Future Of What has its share of these songs, punk rock that is both singularly ferocious and conceptually adventurous. There’s the spidery slash of “Equally Stupid”, which hammers away at a tricky, cycling 5/4 rhythm (offering more thrilling rhythm work from Lund); “Petals Like Bricks” is Cubist and compact in its minimalist two-tone riff; even “Swan”, which is magisterial in sheer ground covered, initially builds from a warping hardcore riff. “Here Come The Dogs” recalls Pink Flag-era Wire until the track’s modish opening guitar figure erupts into one of the album’s loudest, most muscular moments, Trosper sounding utterly feral as he shrieks the song’s title. It’s one of several biting slogans that Unwound embed throughout The Future Of What (the unnerving word-association of “Swan” – “Art wrong, Swan song / No fun in sun / Cakewalk, Fake talk / Burn hot, Bad plot / Sick thought / Fucked up, What now?” – offers a litany of weird catchphrases), underlining the ways in which the album shapes its punk-modernist experiments into exhilarating broadsides. Indeed, the vivid, abstract poetry that runs throughout The Future of What is among its most under-appreciated qualities.
But The Future Of What is actually at its most daring when it cools down. When the album isn’t roaring ahead its either grinding away in a brontosaur lurch (“Natural Disasters”, “Descension”) or focused in on the texture of clean guitars, carefully arranged (“Re-Enact The Crime”). Indeed, one of the less lauded breakthroughs of Future is what it manages to do when it isn’t so much exploding as glinting with glassy precision — the scrubbed guitars of “Re-Enact The Crime” are as jarring as the most feral moments of “Here Come The Dogs” (the album was produced by Steve Fisk, who would lend a similar edge to Low’s translucent guitars on The Curtain Hits The Cast). “Accidents On Purpose” finds Unwound at their modular best, built from a neatly layered groove that stacks Trosper’s waltzing guitar over Rumsey’s elliptical bass rumble and a typically complex-yet-instinctive groove from Lund, the kind of drum part that feels like two tides converging.
Elsewhere there’s the woozy silent-movie organ of “Pardon My French”, the sizzling noise of “Vern’s Answer To The Masses”, small but significant stream-of-consciousness moments that give the album its density, and its feeling of understated audacity. Post-hardcore bands started to embrace trickier structures and weirder sounds in the years to come, following this period in Unwound’s history. Whatever their true inspiration, its noteworthy to see Fugazi coming up with the underrated masterpieces that are Red Medicine and End Hits only after Unwound had dug into its own experimentalist curiosity. The same goes for a band like Refused, who mainly cited the soul-punk performance art of The Nation of Ulysses, but who offered more than a little of Unwound’s studio-as-instrument craftiness in The Shape Of Punk To Come, the mood-setting interludes of Future replaced by mid-century-modern electro fugues.
The cover of The Future Of What is a black-and-white line-drawing of a futurist building by Yakov Chernikhov. The album shares that aesthetic of sharp corners and ingenuity directed towards art-for-use. There’s joy in how differently Unwound seemed to want you to understand guitars and drums during this mini-era. The whole album becomes punk-as-modern-architecture, refiguring angles and shapes, telling different stories about what distortion and breakdowns and shouted slogans can do. It’s a work of art you could take up residence in; to borrow from another avant architect, The Future of What is a machine for living. For a document that has its doubts about the future coded right there in the title, the LP nevertheless carries a hungry newness that only the most dashing modernism could boast. Maybe Unwound chided us to find our energy because they were so replete with their own. Certainly twenty years have hardly slowed the dauntless electrifying whirr of The Future of What.