It can be said that the casual Unsane fan needs no more than three Unsane albums. Those would be, without question, Scattered, Smothered & Covered, Total Destruction and Occupational Hazard. The first shows the band at their apex of composition and production, the second shows their rawness and edge — even if the production is sub-par — and the third shows Unsane at their roundest and most diverse. Yet for the serious fan, there can be no holes in the discography. Much like (Death, the greatest death metal band ever) ranking Unsane albums gives you a lot of “1a” and “2a” type discs. Albums so strong and relentless that it’s a twitch here or there, an experimentation that doesn’t exceed expectations or similar that knocks that album to an “a” status. Adding to the consistency is a commitment to a particular sound, a sound that fueled an entire genre, noise rock, and heavily influenced punk, hardcore, post-hardcore and even metal.
Certainly much of their later catalog has fallen into the lowest tier of Unsane releases, which is merely a second tier. Formed in 1988, they’ve had eight full-length LPs (along with EPs, singles, compilations, a Peel Session and live albums) over 29 years. There have been breaks and reunions, brutal album covers and an endless catacomb of jangly guitars, tightly slopped bass riffs and the relentless one-two punch on the kit. Throughout the entire run Unsane has managed to make high-quality albums with focus, devoir and grit.
For the uninitiated, Unsane’s original drummer, who entered the band when they initially formed at feel-goodery Sarah Lawrence college, Charlie Ondras only recorded two albums with the band before dying tragically young due to a heroin overdose. He was replaced by former Swans and Foetus member Vincent Signorelli. The only other change was the departure of original bassist Pete Shore who was replaced by Dave Curran. Thus, since 1994, the band has remained the trio of Chris Spencer, Curran and Signorelli. Thus, six of their eight major releases have featured those three dedicated to the original vision of Spencer.
Label: Southern Lord.
As mentioned, the sound of Unsane barely wavers. It’s a near drone effect of sludge, noise and punk lulling the listener into a false sense of security. There’s nothing to be complacent about. Spencer’s lyrics are damning, depressive and cutting. So, in 2017, not much has changed for Sterilized. Spencer is front and center singing through filters with chorus and reverb added. Curran’s bass pops with a crisp sizzle as the loose strings rumble over the fret-board. Spencer’s guitar often sounds more like a construction site than a classic six-axe and Signorelli continues to drop one-two, kick-snare combos that ride the line between dragging and enthusing. For ancient fans it’s reassuring: the world is still the same shitty, drug-addled reality the utilitarian band saw out their window in 1988. For newcomers, there is a doorway to an easily accessible, easily-binged catalog of consistently high-quality noise rock leaning heavily on a sludge backbone.
Tracks like “Inclusion” hearken back to the band’s early days, the production allowing less separation among instruments presenting their songs like congealed pudding. Slower and less chaotic than their beginnings, the composition seems focused on smashing listeners into a submission hold.
Dissonant tracks like “Aberration” show Unsane’s influence on the more avant-garde metalcore scene (think Botch). Tri-tones dominate as the track oscillates between a verse/chorus structure before the bridge, at exactly the halfway point, dials up the pace and tension before folding back in on itself like a dense, dying planet. Emblematic of Unsane’s characteristic composition, the track rarely varies in it’s level of attack choosing rather to gently massage the brain with more subtle peaks and valleys across an already elevated plateau.
On the speedier side of things, “Distance” provides a more nuanced sound as guitar lead lines push the track forward with skillful, melodic vocals over the chorus. Again, a dizzying spiral of chunky chords and distorted bass lines cycle round causing that aforementioned unadvised complacency. It’s the drone effect that Unsane is so brilliant at, at once creating comfort among the reality of the jarring nightmares of our daily existence.
Similarly, the opening track, “Factory” lays a serious amount of heft using descending bass chords and guitar lines set a rocking one-two, almost swinging rhythm. Yet another aspect that Unsane has long excelled at: opening tracks. And really track order in general. Spencer certainly has a feel for album flow and the benefits of that skill are immediately reaped. Sterilize is immediately entrancing and engaging due in no small part to the success of “Factory.”
In the never-ending world of turmoil and shit it’s always a good time to get into Unsane or expand your catalogue. Their soundtrack is prescient, falsely comforting and altogether rocking. Sterilize is certainly in the second tier of “A” releases, the 90s are long behind Unsane. But, like every post 2000 release there are plenty of high points, almost zero low points and a commitment to solid, undulating composition of the whole that Sterilized deserves a place on your shelf if not in your heart.
As they say, we will get “no reprieve.” So why worry? Relax. We’re fucked.