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Post-Punk for Metalheads: Unmaker’s Debut “Firmament”

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Metal is not a closed circle. Its borders, like those of any genre, are porous. Influences from all over the world glide in, and musicians with a hint of wanderlust find their way out just as frequently. You can hear those wanderers out in the wider world of music if you know what to listen for. Every metalhead has their tells, and hearing them in a unexpected context can be like reading the hobo code on the side of a door, or performing a secret handshake in a room full of strangers.

Some genres (let’s call them “metal-adjacent”) are easier for metalheads to slip into than others. This is how Jim Reed of Occultist and Aaron Mitchell of Crater and Slowing found themselves in Unmaker, a hard-edged post-punk band gearing up to release their debut album Firmament on October 19th. You can stream Firmament in its entirety below.

Firmament is by no means a metal album, but what it shares with the genre is disaffection. Instead of translating that feeling to anger or aggression, Unmaker use the sounds of goth rock and post-punk to evoke dread and uncertainty. The tension behind the band’s playing never cracks open into an explosion but simmers right at the breaking point. A great deal of this tension comes from Rick Olson’s work with synths. Though he rarely makes it to the record’s surface, Olson’s ambience combined with Reed’s sharp and insistent guitar playing give Firmament a sense of creeping paranoia. Adding to the uncertainty is the band’s deftness with moving suddenly from major keys, typically happy, and minor keys, typically sad, without settling in either mode.

While you’re listening, check out our interview with Jim Reed about the record below:

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Compared to your other projects, Unmaker leans heavily into the sounds of post-punk and goth rock. Was this the intention of the project from the beginning, and if so what drew you to those sounds?

Having some of those elements was definitely intentional. The band germinated from conversations I had with Aaron (the vocalist) while hanging out, listening to records and cutting up together. We were both playing in extreme metal or punk/metal bands at the time (still do) — which we love but we also wanted to explore other sonic territories through playing and writing that neither of us had ventured through before. Both of us have always been all over the map in regards to personal taste in what we listen to. One of the things that we found appealing about drawing from certain areas within the well of post-punk/early goth sounds is the utilization of coldness and warmth coupled with texture and space — it’s a different kind of heaviness that feels freeing to wield. In addition, early punk, krautrock, electronica, 1970s rock and movie scores are also just as big of influences on what we’re doing.

What did you want to accomplish creatively with this project that you were unable to do in a more conventional heavy metal or punk style?

We wanted to play music with contrasting melodies, texture, dynamics with atmosphere and then just keep pushing wherever it goes creatively. This is of course not to insinuate that those elements don’t exist in punk or heavy metal as genres — they of course do. It’s just no one really wanted to incorporate those approaches in a way that made sense in our respective bands that we were doing at the time so we created a new outlet. More so we just want to challenge ourselves in a different manner and be our own “sonic island” so to speak.

How does your experience playing heavier styles of music inform your approach to Unmaker?

The things I’ve learned from playing in heavy bands has definitely helped a lot but I’ve had to unlearn some habits too. For me, the importance of riffs are still carried over and a sense of menace undulating around the structures is still there. One thing I’ve had to learn differently is when playing quietly and cleaner — I’d better nail every note spot on every time. Mistakes and flubs are way more apparent in quiet moments with cleaner tones and have less “character” to me. A lot of distortion with a song that goes by super fast kind of gives you a bit of a less noticeable leeway for slip-ups. It’s definitely challenged me and made me a better player doing this band that has in turn enhanced my writing of heavy/fast jams.

Before recording this record, you played the songs live a great deal. How did road testing the material affect the recording process, and what did you learn about the songs from this experience?

We learned a great deal regarding our chemistry as people playing together plus our quirks when traveling- that was important for everyone and it did result in some lineup shifts but it has all been for the better. I think that taking the time allowed us to solidify many things in regards to being better friends in and out of the band plus it translating properly live coupled with better songs. Early on we definitely made a lot of changes to the songs based upon how we felt about them after the fact live. It also helped ensure that by the time we entered the recording phase that we were a seasoned, tight band.

The songs were essentially recorded live with synth, piano, vocals and guitar overdubs added later. Working with Rick Olson at The Ward, who produced the record, was very helpful because his input was initially more from an outside looking in perspective, he eventually crossed that wall and played synth on some tracks. Currently we’ve been writing at quite a clip and the process is feeling very streamlined.

What is the emotional takeaway that you want listeners to have after listening to Firmament?

Emotions are of course a really subjective thing with art and music. I really don’t put expectations out there as far as any specific takeaway that I want when creating songs. With that said any reaction is a valid takeaway and that’s what I’d prefer — people having whatever reaction that arises naturally from their interpretation of the material. But it would be cool if Firmament gets someone through a shitty day or that it inspires someone to adventure in a way they’ve never adventured before.

Preorder Firmament here.

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