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Unwound’s ‘Repetition’ Turns 20

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While they were still together, Washington post-hardcore outfit Unwound’s iconoclasm came out more through their instrumentation than lyrics. The music of their fifth full-length Repetition, which celebrates it’s 20th birthday today, sounds like it was constructed compulsively, as if the trio transferred all their vitriol from their heads into their hands and let their dexterity think up the riffage—not much mental deliberation, more about bodily (or “fingerly”) deliberation. Unwound’s impetus was sheerly freaking out the listener by way of feedback, bass and guitar (dis)harmonies, sudden changes in dynamic, and other not-so-flattering sonic qualities. It’s Justin Trosper’s bludgeoning guitar-work, combined with Vern Rumsey’s equally powerful bass chords and Sara Lund’s visceral half-times, that’ll really push you over the edge.

Olympia, Washington-based label Kill Rock Stars hosted notable locals like Unwound (who were part of the roster from 1992 until their 2001 demise) as well as canonical indie rock trio Sleater-Kinney. Repetition came out the same year as a few other milestones in post-hardcore music: A Minor Forest’s debut Flemish Altruism and Chavez’s second (and final) full-length Ride The Fader. This album concluded the “middle part” of Unwound’s career, well after they’d become a mainstay at KRS, and preceded the band’s final two full-lengths of new material.

Various forms of discomfort suffuse Repetition. On the cover, a man is sitting at his desk in a terribly mundane-looking computer lab (probably from the ’50s or ’60s), wearily staring off to the side. As if to mock this guy’s stereotypically boring, unvaried white-collar lifestyle, the album title is repeated in a column to the right: “Repetition” 10 times straight downwards. There’s a track called “Fingernails On A Chalkboard,” with a chant of the song-title at one point that dares you to imagine that infamous screechy chalkboard sound, over and over again in your head.

But alongside its forms of discomfort, Repetition has a handful of moments that are surprisingly euphonious. Trosper’s chorus hook blends in with the chords he plays on “Corpse Pose,” conjuring what sounds like voice and instrument coming together as one; tying back to Unwound’s aforementioned relationship between their heads and hands.

Another song off of Repetition is so catchy, that The Black Eyed Peas ripped it off. Take a listen to “Go To Dallas And Take A Left.” I assume you have taste and dignity, but haven’t we all heard “I’ve Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas? Sound familiar? Same BPM, same pronunciation of guitar plucks, same melody.

Also, although they don’t ever reach, say, funeral doom speed, Unwound has the capacity to get real slow; and with each time Sara Lund launches into gargantuan half-time, Repetition is immediately at its most thrilling. Both bass and guitar vamp chords on “Devoid,” sounding like a full-on wave of high-end and low-end—especially during the deluge of a breakdown at the end of it, during which the two stringed-instruments chug away on a low B for a brief time.

Album closer “For Your Entertainment,” another half-timer, recalls second-wave post-rock. On this song, Unwound layer fervent tremolo-picking over a slow, magnitudinous rhythm section; it’s a type of setup that second-wave bands like Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky would eventually frequent in their own music. “For Your Entertainment” sounds barebones if you really scrutinize it—there’s just three instruments and vocals, distortion is the only noticeable additional effect — yet while not searching for the technicalities, it feels climactic. Contemporary post-metal like Sannhet (who employ post-rock motifs and especially love their pedals) instantly came to mind when I first heard this track.

The lyricism on “For Your Entertainment” is all about the corrosiveness of big business, and how corporations have embedded tastelessness within mainstream society. “Sugarcoat the palate / Lower all our standards,” Trosper laments at one point; “Follow any trend that comes their way / They will pick your life apart and throw away your art,” he voices at a later point. For a band whose words are often tough to hear in the mix, this track is a trenchant critique. Unwound’s motive to name this song after the mall-loving retailer (FYE) was teeth-gratingly sardonic.

Over the past few years, Unwound’s legacy has been seeing a much-deserved revival, with their complete oeuvre getting reissued by the label Numero Group. Repetition and 1995’s The Future of What are compiled in the label’s 2014 reissue installment titled No Energy, along with a live recording from an Iceland gig. What’s prominent about Unwound in the No Energy era—in this case, on Repetition — is that they were a capricious force: a band capable of sabotaging everything that’s aurally pleasing, as well as one that exuded these straight-up hummable melodies. The trio sound macabre as fuck on the surface, and they still do once you dig into them a little deeper, but it’s also apparent that they can reach thrilling heights, like on “Devoid” and “For Your Entertainment.” Repetition captures a well-seasoned underground band at their most severe, seminal post-hardcore that’s both feral and enlivening.

—Eli Zeger

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