Published Sep 02, 2015Empire is the fourth instalment of the Numero Group's extensive and elaborate overview of Pacific Northwest explorers Unwound. Two years into the series, and some 13 years after the band collapsed on itself, newcomers have learned a lot about the Tumwater, WA trio. In their earliest days, shortly after morphing from Giant Henry into Unwound, the act fired off scattershot, scrappy punk salvos like "Bionic" and "Kid is Gone." The journey to 1998's Challenge for a Civilized Society, the first of two full-lengths highlighted on Empire, seems almost unlikely, then, considering its often trippy and conscious-expanding approach.
Eerie are the reverberated, shortwave channel blips that precede the white noise-soaked "Data," while "Laugh Track," which upended the in-the-red aggression of post-hardcore with its sinister, cowbell-driven groove, is all herky-jerk tension. While Justin Trosper's ragged cry is somewhat tamed on "What Went Wrong," the emotional intensity of the Challenge for a Civilized Society closer is seismic. It tears at the heart with melancholic guitar damage and highly compressed drum work, eventually tapering off into a frail and wraithlike whirl of organ.
2001's swansong Leaves Turn Inside You found Unwound retreating even further into the recesses of their creative minds, the first and last album to be produced solely by the band. This means they were absolutely free to wild out in their then-newly built MagRecOne studio, adding baroque Wurlitzer lines and chimes to lite psych pieces like "Demons Sing Love Songs." That song and follow-up track "Off This Century" are career highlights, escaping any traditional punk leanings entirely for something more akin to East Coast contemporaries Blonde Redhead, by way of Fugazi. Though it sucks you in, the melted honey hues of the epic LP have an off-the-rails jam-band aesthetic to them. The extended portions can be overwhelming, especially if you're already hours into the Numero-curated series.
Like the other entries in the series, Empire also offers up plenty of B-sides and demo takes for the completists, but laying everything out bare for us still doesn't exactly explain the West coast phenomenon known as Unwound. The back half of their career didn't betray their feisty DIY beginnings, but rather channelled that spitfire madness into something beautiful and, occasionally, upsetting — sonic sermons sent off to the faithful in a language we're still trying to decode. They're a tough group to figure out, for sure, but the box set series has been worth the effort. (The Numero Group)