Empire Box Set
by Chad Jewett
The last two years have seen Numero Group offer us lavishly re-packaged and generously expanded reissues of Unwound’s singular discography, presenting anew the art-punk trio’s oeuvre as epochs rather than albums. There was the nervy, rough-draft hardcore of the Kid Is Gone package, the increased craft and focus of Rat Conspiracy (which covered 1993’s Fake Train and the next year’s New Plastic Ideas) and the modernistic, cagey perfection of the band’s mid-90s run (The Future Of What and Repetition), as assembled on last year’s essential No Energy. Now, with Empire – the final volume in the series – we are treated to an even grander version of the already magisterial final era of Unwound, a suitably outsized pair of post-post-hardcore manifestos that still, 15 years later, mark the outer edges of punk’s imagination.
Listening to the set’s paired LP’s, 1998’s Challenge For A Civilized Society and 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You, as one deep, dense two hour block (not counting the era-appropriate B-sides and extras included on a fourth platter), you can track the band as they first double-down on the grinding, cubist rhythms perfected on Repetition before bathing the whole thing in further psychedelic textures and impressionistic studio haze. You get the sense that the Olympia, Washington trio were still focused on pushing the looping, spikey grooves of “Corpse Pose” and “Fingernails On A Chalkboard” – songs that cycle around sharp textures rather than proceed to verses and choruses – on Challenge For A Civilized Society, which seems to have a similar aesthetic in mind, paired with an increased attention to clarity and dynamism.
“Meet The Plastics”, for instance, might more or less spend its three minutes pivoting between two different gonzo-garage riffs, but Justin Trosper’s biting yelps sell that studied minimalism as something exciting and compelling. Same goes for “Lifetime Acheivement Award”, which mostly bubbles on low heat with its one sticky riff, but stays gripping as Trosper finds a ghostly cooing register that he hadn’t yet quite tried out on any previous Unwound records. Sara Lund and Vern Rumsey, for their part, do much of their best work on Challenge – especially Rumsey, whose tactile, flinty basslines are at their most springy and muscular here. As a group, the band was finding ways to make punk music with an intangibly nuanced touch. Album opener “Data” almost feels like a more refined take on the bash-and-shout stomp of Future Of What opener “New Energy”, except where its predecessor simply bursts immediately, “Data” slithers in atop spidery Byrne/Eno guitar chatter.
Challenge For A Civilized Society is certainly Unwound’s most diverse (or, less optimistically, scattered) full-length, constantly zipping between the likes of the brief Devo-esque “NO TECH!” and sprawling epics like “Side Effects Of Being Tired”. That kind of boundless motion can be infectious, and Challenge (along with New Plastic Ideas) is likely Unwound’s most underrated album, if only because it actually makes a virtue of the very fact that it’s so obviously transitional, one end firmly placed in the wiry post-hardcore of The Future Of What, the other finding its footing in the ornate, outsized world of Leaves Turn Inside You, the band’s final album. Indeed, there is no end to the comparisons possible between Unwound and their East Coast counterparts Fugazi, but the most compelling is the matching narrative of both band’s closing dyads, with Challenge and Fugazi’s End Hits serving as the tipping-point LPs that perennially miss out on their share of the credit for being at once electrifying punk albums and understatedly experimental changes of direction.
Which also means that you’d be justified in hearing Leaves Turn Inside You as Unwound’s The Argument, a daring, sonically adventurous tour de force that saw both band’s pulling out all the creative stops as they slowly realized their time as a collective group was coming to an end. Nearing its 15th birthday, Leaves Turn Inside You remains one monumental piece of work, an album that manages to be at once gorgeous and painterly as it is ferocious and challenging. Where each of the band’s last three albums had begun with a brusque, forceful bruiser, Leaves floats in on a bed of ringing organ-like noise and a chiming guitar that recalls some blissful combination of Yo La Tengo and Physical Graffiti-era Led Zeppelin before eventually widening into billowing, widescreen prog-pop, Trosper’s doubled-and-tripled harmonies a huge blanket atop Lund’s roiling, free-form drums. It’s a mission statement alright, as unmistakable as The Future Of What’s demands for energy or Challenge’s barking paranoia. It’s almost a surprise when “Look A Ghost” turns back to the ticking math-rock of Unwound’s previous two records, except that in place of a tart shout, Justin Trosper offers an airy murmur, the song’s chorus resembling The Zombies (a touchstone throughout) more than Sonic Youth. In fact, a lot of the moments where the trio does conjure up some past sound are made new by Trosper’s more tuneful, cerebral approach, as on “Scarlette”, where the song’s coiled rumble is matched with a rasping whisper from the singer, an uncanny but oddly affecting bit of character acting.
Generally, all of Leaves can more or less be understood as a punk record executed as a psychedelic rock record, or vice versa. It’s deconstructed hardcore wrapped in a lavish gauze of avant-garde art music. Trosper, Lund, and Rumsey built their own studio to allow for more time and experimentation, and that extra room to play shows on tracks like “Treachery”, which bathes its odd waltz-time post-punk in chilly synthesizers, taking the time to fold in a bunch of ideas that perhaps shouldn’t work together, and warming them up till they do. The band would end up having to add two members (including original drummer Brandt Sandeno) for subsequent tours in support of the album, documented on the excellent Live Leaves collection. In every sense, Unwound were allowing themselves to expand and stretch out, and you can often hear that sense of opened space throughout Leaves.
The presence of co-producer Phil Ek also informs this reading of Leaves Turn Inside You, especially when you consider that Ek’s vitae includes both The Shins and Les Savy Fav, Built To Spill and Fleet Foxes – in other words, some intersection of all-angles art-punk and atmosphere-heavy guitar-pop with a certain woodsy bent. In fact, Leaves is the first and only time that you actually notice spare traces of that other Pacific Northwest in Unwound’s sound, not (just) the intellectual hardcore of Bikini Kill and Lync and Sleater-Kinney, but the forest-green astral indie of Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, and early Band Of Horses – especially on woozy mid-tempo tracks like “Demons Sing Love Songs”. Just spend time with the almost-poppy “Off This Century” or the almost-pretty closing three-minutes of “Terminus” (after that haunted-house violin) or the actually gorgeous swoons of “Radio Gra” and “October All Over”. Even when Unwound was still doing their clanky, atonal thing, as on “December”, there’s still a new, moodier touch that leaves the song feeling at once aggressive and delicate, abrasive and finely etched.
Because Unwound were a lot more deliberate in their approach to Leaves (and because they broke up not long after) there are less B-sides and adjacent non-album tracks to be assembled for this last box-set. The stuff that was out there is characteristically either worthwhile on its own – as is the case with the deceivingly titled garage-rocker “Torch Song” and the abstract sound-collage “The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is A Train” – or is at least worth a listen as a historical document. The aforementioned live album Live Leaves remains the defining word on Unwound’s performed approaches to this era and its material, but the extra ten dollars for the bonus Peel Sessions EP is generally worth the investment, both because you’re likely a completest if you’ve invested this much anyway, and because its neat to see the band bringing their always-growing imagination to revisiting (and revising) past work like “Kantina”. The packaging itself (as well as the long-form essay and pictures included there-in), remain top-notch, as has always been the case with the Unwound reissue series and the obsessive archivists at Numero Group in general. Ultimately, it’s a fitting, aptly reverent final monument to one of indie music’s great innovators, a stylish tribute to one of the most important, challenging, and riveting bands in the history of punk rock.