1991-2002: Unwound’s Graceful Exit

There is no user manual for aging rock stars. Most bands don’t know what to do when they’re past their prime or decide it’s time to bow out. Some stagger along the way, spitting subpar albums and lukewarm performances on their way to the ground, sometimes exploding flamboyantly to the delight of onlookers. Others refuse to believe their days are numbered and become laughingstocks on the County Fair circuit, promising a new album they know will never happen. The end can also be the saddest part of an artist’s career, one which fans, like pet owners, try to deny and postpone until the very last moment when it’s better to have them put to sleep than live in misery. For all these reasons, it’s not uncommon for bands to keep plowing along, never facing the lethal injection, raking a few bucks along the way.

And, for fuck’s sake, let’s keep thoughts about late stage reunions to ourselves this time.

This is why the road taken by Tumwater, Washington’s Unwound is so admirable. One of the most important and vibrant bands of the 90s, Unwound chose to end their existence on their own terms, before anything detrimental could happen to their sound. While I won’t get into the personal reasons why Unwound split — there was never an official explanation — I will postulate that the band did the right thing breaking up the way they did. Not only did they go on a fantastic high note with 2001’s ambitious, sprawling, yet introverted double CD Leaves Turn Inside You, but their discography had already ascended into genius years earlier. Leaves was only the crown jewel on a vast treasure vault.

Take for example The Future of What, released in 1995 by longtime partners Kill Rock Stars, which displays their early sound and what makes them so unique: Justin Trosper screaming Beat-like free association rants while his guitar arpeggiated, bent, and conjured a veritable hell that was heavy without resorting to traditional playing and angular without losing intention, Vern Rumsey following the footsteps of Dave Allen of Gang of Four, holding down the low end while providing the riffs and hooks. Sara Lund, their drummer for most of their history, played with mechanical abandon, grooving over shattered time signatures and transposing everything to break from the tyranny of 4/4 or, as Don Van Vliet once famously said, “the beat of mother’s heart” (I’m sure I’m paraphrasing the Captain slightly there). The Future of What also shows Unwound progressing with each song into less structured territory until the last couple of pieces are out and out harsh noise, not unlike contemporaries Emil Beaulieu or Smell & Quim. These noise segments weren’t just a throwaway attempt to seem avant-guard; heard out of context, they form a piece of brute power — formless music that makes me long for a full Unwound ‘noise album’.

As time marched on, the band dedicated themselves to exploring the farthest regions of the sound they helped create. Challenge for a Civilized Society, their second to last studio album, shows the road they had traveled, what they had learned, and where they were willing to go. Opening highlight “Data” could have been included on any of their albums before Repetition (wherein they tried to smooth their sound without turning down the dissonance or distortion) and while Trosper’s voice is less screamy, the music remains a whirlwind of postpunk noise rock. Again, as the album moves along the music becomes less defined until everything breaks from the confines of traditional song structure. This time, though, Unwound ventures into more subdued tones, loops, and different textures (listen for trumpet), expanding into a piece that could easily pass for art rock. Furthermore, the looseness doesn’t break the album’s flow — both the structured and the experimental tracks live together to form a complete work. After listening to the post-sampling Mingus drone, you have no choice but to flip the record and listen to “Data” and the rest of the songs all over again. Unwound had mastered the craft of The Album.

Leaves Turn Inside You is their most celebrated work, from the opening symphony of multi-tracked guitar feedback to the more somber, hushed tracks that carefully utilized sonic textures (perhaps to let us know the end is nigh), it is a fantastic record, but one that couldn’t have happened without each preceding work. The mood of the album reminds me of another curtain call by an important band from the same era, one where the tone is less explosive, mature, and melodic than what they had done before (I’m talking about Fugazi’s The Argument). Leaves doesn’t end on an experimental note, instead, it features a song that could be Depression-era ragtime, giving us a playful conclusion to one of the most formidable recording histories by a group of individuals doing radical rock.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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