“YOU DON’T JUST TURN IT OFF!” exclaims Rambo, after waging war over being denied the hospitality of a quaint li’l mountain town by its a-hole, king shit sheriff. Likewise, there are deeply ingrained facets to Unwound that can’t be silenced just because the 90s are over and the world moved on without them. There’s that pokerfaced entrancement and tentative release, that rough and ready negative energy affixed to so much cacophonously throbbing heart. The dependable chaos that occurs when inspiration meets craft meets audience meets expectation can’t even still this bubblin’ crude. So it’s only natural that frontman Justin Trosper and pre-Sara Lund Unwound member Brandt Sandeno (along with bassist/drummer Meg and Kris Cunningham) have picked up their buck tools as Survival Knife for a furtive stab in the throbbing vein left by that harrowing engagement known as Leaves Turn Inside You.
There’s a bit of a “keep your head down” feel to this hotly anticipated debut, despite the album rocking in a decidedly brighter, more tuneful fashion than anything from Trosper’s previous work. It accesses the bent progressions of Unwound and defers to their vitality. In effect, Loose Power can’t help but come across somewhat disappointingly serviceable. It would be my pleasure to never mention the U-word at all and take Survival Knife on their own merits, but a lot of what’s good about these songs is also what was great about Unwound. When the main difference between the bands is a more trad-rock application of hooks, this can almost seem like a shrug at the magnificent, destroyed despondency that made songs like “All Souls Day” or “Scarlette” so bracing. The sound is a masterful compromise, but a compromise nonetheless.
However, if one makes their peace with this, Loose Power is a decidedly listenable affair. It seems like, while Trosper may have lightened up a bit, he’s still enamored enough with his formative template to jam it up. And as much as some of us would rather he become a Trappist monk than release a jammy album, it’s loose in the best possible way. It’s strange at first to hear those unmistakable sour patch riffs married with cock-rock swagger (pre-change howl, fret slide, keening backing vocal), but eventually one starts to settle in and luxuriate. The creature comforts of disciplined formality and some tasteful prog flash overtake one much more than the initially frustrating conflicting impressions of detuned homeyness and motor city mold.
Although the songs flash with dark edges, Survival Knife feels younger than that now, willing to rock out in a way that’s fist-bumpingly infectious rather than confrontational. The challenge lies less in raw emotion (though highlight “Cut The Quick” is as beautifully dreary as any choice Unwound slow-burner) and more in how restless a band can be while still retaining a basic rhythmic and melodic draw. Loose Power is an unpredictable, sinewy record that slaves away in the shadow of something that is sure to loom larger as time marches on. Yet, after several spins, this looming serves to endear more than undermine. These seven songs flash out of the glad shadows as beacons of passion, potential, and hard=won endurance. One need only give them room (and plenty of volume) to illuminate.