Monday, March 19, 2012

Playing the tortoise: 20-plus years of Unsanity

Via Pitchfork, here's my review of the new Unsane album, Wreck.

My current thoughts on Unsane tie into a post I wrote last November on the veteran death-metal band Obituary. I enjoyed both of these groups in high school, but my enthusiasm for each was lukewarm; back then I was looking for something more ambitious, and neither quite fit the bill. Unsane was up against craw, Dazzling Killmen and other purveyors of extreme post-hardcore, while Obituary competed against the mighty Morbid Angel.

It's telling that none of that competition really exists anymore. Craw and Dazzling Killmen have broken up, and while Morbid Angel persists, I feel okay admitting that none of their future releases are likely to affect me as much as Covenant did back in '93. In the Unsane review, I referred to them as the tortoises of the NYC noise-rock scene, and Obituary have played a similar role in the Florida death-metal movement. Each has barely progressed since the early '90s; instead they've both chosen to simply dig in and micro-refine over a steady stream of albums.

This is the kind of achievement that's easy to overlook. (It's also the kind of achievement that's not always praiseworthy: A "tortoise" band only seems continually respectable if their current work feels as true and from-the-gut as their vintage material.) What I've realized recently is that, for me, unchanging-ness is no longer a knock in and of itself. And Unsane has certainly endured its share of knocks on just that count; Pitchfork's reviews of its previous two records, Visqueen and Blood Run, were not kind. If I feel that a band continues to mean what they're doing over time, and if what they're doing sounds good to me, I'm completely okay with that essentially anti-evolutionary approach. This flies in the face of that whole "Better to burn out than it is to rust" concept. There's a third alternative there: Keep driving the same car, but make sure it stays polished. I'm not an expert on, say, Motörhead, but I think they've followed the same principle.

What I'm saying in short is that I still believe Unsane. They don't surprise me, but I like the feeling they give me. The dire-ness does not feel forced. Not every band has to "progress." Sometimes progression really means diffusion. Take, say, Mastodon. I enjoy their latest record just fine, but it doesn't have that "Holy shit…" quality. It feels almost casual, in comparison with a back catalog (Remission, e.g.) that at its best has felt deadly serious. That's the risk of evolving, I guess. (And it's worth keeping in mind that records are not always these sacred texts, removed from reality; sometimes they're just a collection of songs to play live. Another thing Unsane and Obituary have in common is that they're both hard-touring bands who continue to kick ass live precisely because they don't mess with the formula onstage or in the studio.)

For me, the real takeaway is that there's no one right way to play it. Longevity is the first priority, and if a band can hang around and still make vital, enjoyable records 20-odd years after it started, I have no problem with the fact that those records sound pretty much exactly the same in the macro sense. (Nor, I should make clear, do I have a problem with progression and evolution; the trick, though, is how to accomplish that without forsaking intensity and conviction.) I've listened to the entire Unsane discography over the past week or so, and while I was barely surprised at all, I rocked out pretty much nonstop. Now, later in life, that means more to me than it did. I don't think it's that my aesthetic palate has dulled; I think it's that I appreciate the raw craftsmanship of rock more. Pick a style and churn it out. That's good enough for me.

P.S. For more on these themes, see last December's Immolation post.

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