Unsane Tap In
As its name suggests, UFC Magazine devotes its bimonthly pages to the professional athletic league known as Ultimate Fighting Championship—a mixed-martial-arts competition in which some of the world's most skilled hulks climb into a chain-bound fortification called the Octagon and beat one another toward the threshold of oblivion. The covers of these magazines almost always feature one of the sport's leading musclemen, perhaps with a massive fist inching close to the camera or holding one of those oversize black-and-gold belts that comes with a victory.
The issue now on newsstands features on its front lightweight champion Jon Jones, holding both his breath and clinched fists underwater. There are stories about a behemoth whose nickname is the "Bigg Rigg" and a fighter who was fired after tweeting a joke about rape.
But it's not all fists and fury. Near the middle of the magazine's 92 pages, writer Nick Catucci catalogs five albums worth "adding to the rotation" in a column named Sonic Assault. Alongside new records by Ministry and Spiritualized, Catucci explores Wreck (Alternative Tentacles), the seventh album by belligerent New York noise-metal-rock grinders Unsane. "Strangled cries coming up from beneath the debris," he calls it.
Stuck in a van sprinting between tour dates in Austin and Houston, Chris Spencer laughs when he learns that the band he has been leading for nearly a quarter-century has broken into mixed-martial-arts media. "We're in the magazine?" he asks excitedly. "Wow, holy shit! That's really weird."
Spencer doesn't ignore record reviews. After this long of a tenure, he admits, his trio with bassist Dave Curran and drummer Vinnie Signorelli simply and selfishly writes and records the music it wants to play, regardless of whether others might think it sounds good. But reading record reviews, he says, remains his primary indication that people still care about Unsane. "When we finished this new record, I loved playing it, but I didn't know if anyone would like it at all," he says. "But we got a bunch of reviews, and they were good."
UFC never crossed Spencer's mind as an outlet, but the placement isn't as weird as he thinks. Unsane's spot, after all, is a peculiar one: Historically, they could be considered something of indie-rock royalty, especially with Signorelli having been a member of seismic rock acts Swans and Foetus. Unsane emerged as a bellicose, unmitigated indie-rock act at a time when underground rock 'n' roll was breaking into new spheres of popularity; they briefly broke from the indie ranks to join Atlantic Records.
For more than two decades, Unsane has done their best to sound and seem frightening. Their records are rigorous spans of musical whiplash, with loud-as-war drums, guitar and bass militantly jerking through workouts with names like "Ruin," "Make Them Prey," "Concrete Bed," and "Organ Donor." Their record covers put an ever-grosser point on the punishment. Seen in sequence, the fronts of their seven albums suggest a collectable set of horror-movie flash cards—a decapitated man bleeding out after being hit in a New York City subway; a car's grill smeared with blood; a crime scene consisting of a hammer, a mattress, and bloody sheets; a riverside metal column doused with the blood of an industrial-accident victim; a single razor blade (no blood); a bloodied body wrapped in plastic and left to rot in a field; and, most recently, a portrait of a hand dripping fresh blood. The cover of the very good, very raw collection Singles 89–92 (Matador) depicts a bathtub and white-tile walls mired with viscera.
In 1994, Unsane earned MTV love for the video accompanying the messy howler "Scrape," a hard-rock-backed bridge between America's Funniest Home Videos and the disaster-prone flicks tagged online as "Fail." That video's mix of extreme sports and extreme music offers a fitting precursor to the band's place in UFC, to their status as a band equally suited for rock-club nerds and bros wearing tight Tapout shirts.
Both tonally and technically, Unsane once fit somewhere among metal guys Melvins, math-rockers Polvo, and technical torturers Helmet; they now remain somewhere between noise rippers Lightning Bolt, noise losers Sightings, and brawny metal army Oxbow. But they also sound far less esoteric than those comparisons might suggest. From the new record, Wreck, the steely blues of "No Chance" could feel right at home (if a bit malevolent) on heavier rock radio stations, while an edit of the doomed six-minute builder, "Stuck," could probably hold its own in a Nirvana-Nickelback double stack. Unsane records feel like the dude in the bar who steps outside for a smoke, beats the blood out of someone in an alley, and returns inside, unshaken, to talk to his friends about the news of the week, some book he has been reading, or Kierkegaard. The smarts mete out punishment.
As such, Wreck isn't a notable departure or progression for Unsane; the band sounded as brawny and as prone to belligerence in 1992 as it does in 2012. In a sense, this trio is opposite of a champion mixed-martial artist, whose body will inevitably fade and fail over time. Unsane have only gotten better, louder, meaner, more musically ready to fulfill the promise of each record cover—the perfect soundtrack for a bunch of dudes trying to get better at beating one another senselessly in a cage made of metal.
Unsane play Webster Hall on April 29.
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