Another essential box from The Numero Group here, rounding off their Unwound series. Empire gives you the final two albums Challenge For A Civilised Society and Leaves Turn Inside You, the band's most crushing nihilistic documents -- both use sinewy guitar and a hands-off vocal approach that admits nobody's listening anymore. Comes with rarities and unreleased recordings and a 15,000 word essay. That smorgasbord is spread over four whole vinyl LPs, packaged in a serious sleeve.
LP box set £49.99 NUM2025LP
4LP set on Numero Group.
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- Empire by Unwound
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An accurate, if crude summary of Unwound’s final years of rock nihilism -- now an apathetic shrug rather than a distraught salvo -- comes in this review by a person named Zach: “In their past, Unwound would scream and shout to anybody that would listen: “HEY YOU GUYS REALIZE THIS ALL EQUATES TO NOTHING, RIGHT?”. But on their final album, Leaves Turn Inside You, they finally realized that nobody was listening, so vocalist Justin Trosper decided to moan and wail so dispassionately even Thom Yorke would be taken aback.” It’s stuck with me as a way of understanding and accepting the band’s untimely dissolution: Unwound’s early hardcore might’ve sounded like they were trying to grind their way towards a turning point among the numbing repetition, but their final days as a noise rock band are the sound of inevitable decay.
‘Empire’ collects two of noise rock’s greatest ever records -- though in true Unwound form, one is totally shrouded, nigh on forgotten. Coming too close to ‘Leaves Turn Inside You’, an album later exalted as a classic, ‘Challenge For a Civilised Society’ has been largely shrugged off. It’s not that surprising -- this is one of the band’s least accessible records, an incredible slog that only occasionally opens up to melody the way it successor did, a record that rarely even finds comfort in noise: the distortion swirls and suffocates as Justin Trosper’s voice bleats monotonously, wrapped up by a tangling web of riffs. It may begin on two punchy, well navigated songs (the yelp-frenzy of “Data” into the classic “Laugh Track”, which stomps out words and chords one step at a time), but it begins to challenge its audience of presupposed haters with quiet slow jams like “Sonata For Loudspeakers” and the soul-sucking “What Went Wrong”.
Nearly every song on ‘Challenge’ attempts to take the prize for Unwound’s bleakest moment: on a record filled with loneliness, disappearance and despair, it’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” that wins out. Over a weeping guitar tone Trosper gives out three simple verses (chief among them: “We regret to say / it is indeed a shame / that while you weren’t around / no one noticed”), eventually reiterating them atop a bed of ambience a la the song played backwards -- the ultimate sign of the band’s Who Cares mantra.
Unwound did not make ‘Challenge’ for streamlined consumption, but they took its sourness and reassembled it for a cinematic, borderline post-rock record in ‘Leaves Turn Inside You’. The record has the same beautiful subtlety in its production values: Trosper is barely heard, his vocal often processed into mushy wallpaper paste (as on “Demons Sing Love Songs”, where he’s married to grumbling guitars and a whizzing synthline); the gorgeous “Below The Salt” carves out a hundred unique spaces for its riffs to go, underneath a haze of reverberating guitars and distantly thrummed piano; “One Lick Less” is suppressed so that Sara Lund’s drumming sounds watery and elegiac, like Grouper in a rock quartet.
At this point, Unwound certainly gave way less shits, and played way less loud, but there was a different kind of drama wanting in their music: ‘Fake Train’ might have seen them making ten minute hypnosis punk jams, but ‘Leaves’ gave us “Terminus”, a track that folded outwards into an epic of Godspeed proportions and aesthetics -- strings dangling from above, drum fills running through the underground and crescendos crashing. Trosper might have dug into himself and found a place nowhere else could go, but his band became more expansive, open to the dead ends their melodies might take them. Among the demos and Peel sessions that come with ‘Empire, there are demos that suggest the band at their most explorative: the title track itself meanders through separate entities of repetition, weaving through riffs and melodies like one might lead to something.
Amidst all the claims that No One Cares, Unwound’s music always made me believe there was a next step.
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