The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train: A Critical Overview of Unwound

Features, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Ruben Lorch-Miller

On April 1, 2002, one of the most influential punk bands in a region teeming with influential punk bands broke up, leaving seven full-length albums and a slew of singles for the world. As a memorial to their pervading influence, KEXP features writer, local music columnist, and veteran music critic Martin Douglas surveys Unwound's full-length discography in depth.

Not to get too meta from the outset, but the fact that Unwound aren’t quite the household name they should be is mostly a symptom of online music criticism only being a nascent concern when they parted ways. In terms of influence, the band cast a deep shadow that has yet to fade two decades after their breakup. Whether you refer to their style as post-hardcore or good ol’ fashioned art-punk, the Tumwater-born, Olympia-bred trio followed their invisible muse down paths still being explored to this day.

The band — best known in their longtime iteration of singer/guitarist Justin Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey, and drummer Sara Lund — were punk largely in the religious sense of the term, but also pretty fucking punk aesthetically. They were voracious students of music and keen on experimenting with unique approaches, but knew exactly what not to try (or knew better than to let those ideas see the light of day). They were grungy but not grunge; pretty far removed from their longhaired, flanneled, and occasionally shirtless contemporaries 90 minutes to the north. 

Over the course of six albums ranging in quality from very good to truly immaculate, Unwound was for all intents and purposes the quintessential Kill Rock Stars band. They were the first on the label to be given a full-length release; perhaps arguably the group most synonymous with the label’s artistic fundamentals. The only act on the label that could possibly challenge Unwound’s stature was Sleater-Kinney, and KRS owner Slim Moon famously turned down signing his label’s other greatest-ever band at first. 

Unwound broke up after their Olympia farewell show on April 1st, 2002, sometime after their co-headlining slot at the music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in its inaugural United States event. (The other headliner? Sonic Youth, who were also tapped to curate the festival.) Of course, this is near the inception of internet media’s discovery of the joys of online pranks, so more than a few people interpreted it as a hoax.

By their own admission when they embarked on an archival project to preserve the band’s legacy a decade later, Unwound mostly predated the internet. The Our Band Could Be Your Life era was fading when they formed, zines had mostly gone back underground, and although their defining work as a band — 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside Youreceived a flowery score of 9.0 on Pitchfork, Best New Music had yet to be conceived and the site’s notoriety as the most polarizing force in music criticism had yet to be reached.

As much as I’d like to call out names, I’m going to refrain from doing so here for now. Just know that if you like contemporary music even remotely associated with artsy, experimental, sorta fucked up rock music, you like a band that sounds at least a little bit like Unwound. You enjoy a band greatly influenced by them, or at the very least has cribbed a few of their tricks. 

The band hasn’t released a note of music in the past two decades and never will again. But I still hear Unwound damn near everywhere I go. 

As effusive as my words have been, as deep as my love for Unwound goes, this is not a stone tablet memorial for a band that broke up and never did anything significant since. The band’s former members were and are wellsprings of creativity and advocacy for artists chasing down their most dynamic ideas. The late Rumsey (who passed away in 2020) co-founded the great label Punk in My Vitamins; Lund played in the Corin Tucker Band as well as Nocturnal Habits with Trosper, who also formed Survival Knife with founding Unwound drummer Brandt Sandeno. This is just a small handful of groups and projects outside of Unwound these artists have been involved in, even dating back to the band’s early days.

What lies ahead are thoughts, musings, and crucial secondhand insight on one of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential bands, breaking down all of their full-length releases in reverse chronological order. What is being laid before you is an extensively researched look at one of the most dauntingly great catalogs in this region’s much-celebrated rock scene, written by someone who I hope to god is at least somewhat qualified to do so. This is a tribute to the restless creative spirit of Unwound, and how that spirit still lives on.

Leaves Turn Inside You (2001)

It’s only fitting that what would become Unwound’s final album would end with what sounds like the music from a New Orleans funeral procession. Though none of its members knew with certainty at the time — all accounts point toward their ill-fated 2001 tour dates in support of this album, though according to Trosper, he fatalistically (his word choice) thought Unwound would end after every album cycle — the final seconds of Unwound’s studio output invoke a celebration of life, buoyant and joyous and absolutely nothing like the band’s actual demise mere months after the album’s release. 

In the context of Unwound’s output, Leaves Turn Inside You is its biggest outlier in spite of being the band’s most exalted work. It plays with arrangement in a more nuanced way than their past albums; Leaves opens with a melodic but piercing drone from an EBow and sustains itself for 2 ¼ minutes. “We Invent You” eventually makes way for a thrilling, climactic entrance, befitting of heroes not knowing they’re about to engage in their final battle. The song takes a far more minimal approach than what Unwound had been known for up to that point; their sound prior to Leaves could be described as full and massive, often to the point of assault.

Not that Unwound haven't had distinct moments of beauty and diaphanousness (we’ll get to plenty of those), but their final album is so packed with (relative) delicacy that it’s difficult to not see it as both a new path forward — before that path was abruptly cut short by a brick wall. As a result of funding the construction of their own studio, production was an ever-present focus on the making of Leaves Turn Inside You. Trosper studied the music he consumed at the time: Bowie’s work with Brian Eno, Burzum, The Soft Bulletin (mainly Dave Fridmann’s work behind the boards), Kid A

Just as with the aforementioned album, the farmhouse studio where Leaves was recorded essentially serves as a member of the band.

Even so, the songs the band wrote, augmented by fluttering guitar effects or highlighted by high-pitched feedback, carried their own sense of brilliance. There is the weaving guitar line in “Look a Ghost,” a pulsating tension that carries the nearly 10-minute-long “Terminus,” the sometimes slinky, sometimes stuttering bass of “December” (one of two Unwound songs Rumsey sings lead vocals on). The truth of the matter was that close to a decade together, regardless of how infrequently they toured and practiced in the run-up to Leaves being recorded, Unwound was a band of stellar musicians always looking for new approaches to their craft, new ways to expand the scope of their instrumental prowess. The eerie beauty of a tune like “Demons Sing Love Songs” is part and parcel to Unwound’s growth. 

The almost-instrumental “Radio Gra” is accompanied by a climactic string arrangement, “Below the Salt” finds itself augmented by a melancholy, rudimentary piano; Mellotron, synthesizers, and Fender Rhodes appear throughout the album’s 76-minute runtime. 

When Lund joined Unwound, the band sprinted away from the tight clutches of hardcore punk, instead being driven by a percussionist unencumbered by its limitations. Leaves Turn Inside You is obviously such a defining collective and individual statement for all the band’s members, but Lund is clearly on a star-making turn here, the likes of which not as tremendously obvious since she stepped in on drums in 1992. She is given ample space to, among many other instances, stand in front on “We Invent You,” ground the woozy shoegaze of “One Lick Less” after three full minutes of soaring in the ether, and keep the spacey, fluttering, ethereal, sometimes vaporous arrangements elsewhere on the album rooted in a tangible space.

Before the horns signify its end, Leaves Turn Inside You closes with an instrumental track titled “Who Cares,” if you need a prescient clue about the demise of Unwound. Also, it serves as archetypal punk undercutting of an album so heavy with feeling, with emotion, with caring. With the benefit and clarity of hindsight — funny how it always happens when looking back — you could see Unwound putting everything they had into their dynamic seventh album until they had nothing left to give. Of course, the band would last nearly another year. Barely, but they would manage to persevere, at least in the temporary sense of the word. 

A Single History: 1991-1997 (1999)

There is a track from Unwound’s 1999 singles collection which this article is titled after: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train.” In my heart of hearts, I am a fatalist, so I allowed the title to grab me by the throat. It’s a collage piece featuring elements from their 1998 album Challenge for a Civilized Society played backward, drums recontextualized, a long voice message pitch about an idea for a new age rave. Its opening motif is a figure pensive and reaching for something in the vast, intangible distance.

Like many great punk bands whose tenure mostly predated file sharing, Unwound thrived in the singles format. A Single History serves as a time capsule of sorts for the band; featuring the work of both drummers, extending from its hardcore roots to the highest branches reaching to their most far-out ideas. The hard-charging “Miserific Condition.” The trumpet-augmented reggae tune “Census.” Their brooding, lurching cover of Minutemen’s “Plight.” Noise-rock set-piece ironically titled “New Radio Hit.” Demo highlight and live favorite “Crab Nebula.” All of which are are represented here. A Single History may primarily serve as a curio artifact for completists in the age of collector’s box sets and streaming playlists, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t jam.

Challenge for a Civilized Society (1998)

I suppose there has to be a least-beloved selection from any exhaustively well-considered artist, regardless of the medium. It’s human nature to play favorites, make lists, figure out which things out of an important grouping of things are our least favorite. All that said, Challenge for a Civilized Society is widely regarded as Unwound’s worst album. 

To be fair, that’s not to say anybody is saying the full-length is not good. In Numero Group’s exhaustive liner notes for the box set series installment which includes Challenge (titled Empire), Rumsey commented it seemed rushed (in spite of the band getting an unprecedented two weeks in the studio with longtime producer Steve Fisk) and less organic than the other six Unwound full-lengths. Trosper felt that although the album sounds the best from an audiophile standpoint, there was something to be desired when it came to the band’s performance. Lund played the record for friends who remarked that it didn’t sound like the Unwound they were used to. There were more than a few people both retrospectively and in the moment who felt it was a miss after the high watermark that was their 1996 album Repetition

Listening to the album in context — “context” meaning “obsessively” and “frequently alongside pretty much every single other thing Unwound has ever recorded” — Challenge is still a very good record with more than occasional moments of brilliance. “Laugh Track” is catchier than a lot of the stuff on alternative rock radio in 1998; same for “Meet the Plastics,” as strong an argument for post-grunge as any band has ever tried. “What Went Wrong” was the latest in a long line of emotional, thrilling closing tracks, and “Side Effects of Being Tired” (featuring vocals and lyrics by Rumsey) ferries through both a free-jazz freakout and extended ambient noise coda in one of the boldest, most challenging tracks Unwound laid to tape.

Sure, “Sonata for Loudspeakers” could have done something a little more interesting with those trumpet arrangements. But “Lifetime Achievement Award” turns a found recording of the Happy Birthday song played backwards into an affecting vocal melody and yet another sterling example of Lund’s gifts as a drummer. Challenge might contain a few missteps — missteps are the province of the truly ambitious — but it’s also not quite the failure it is sometimes viewed as.

Repetition (1996)

Repetition is an album of grand gestures, which is probably why it was Unwound’s best-selling album in their initial run. “Message Received” and especially “Corpse Pose” are the two most recognizable songs the band had ever released. The former I distinctly remember hearing before knowing what indie rock was. The latter, with its wordless chorus being played on both anxiously whining guitar and the ARP 2600 synthesizer, the instrument Stevie Wonder put on the map, both singing in unison, would serve as Unwound’s calling card up until the startling breadth of Leaves Turn Inside You. 

The experimentation of Repetition continued throughout Unwound’s growing reputation as uncompromising artists at a time where major label executives had been throwing wads of money — stacked like the bills rappers today hold up to their ears and pretend are telephones on Instagram — at any person holding a guitar from Bellingham to Chehalis for nearly a half-decade. Make no bones about it, in spite of their “hits,” Unwound were still a singularly challenging band.

Lund and Rumsey take the driver’s seat on the sublime and vaguely sinister “Fingernails on a Chalkboard,” where they make their rhythm section sound like it’s a car with no brakes tumbling down a hill. “Sensible” travels down a well-beaten path, as you can probably name a dozen punk bands off memory who had recorded a dub instrumental by 1996. “Go to Dallas and Take a Left” had a wild free-jazz breakdown better than anything on Challenge for a Civilized Society a solid two years before that record’s release and its enduring reputation as “Unwound’s jazz album.” 

And then there are moments of gorgeous songwriting like the mournful Side A closer “Lady Elect,” Trosper singing in a bored low tenor, counteracting the song’s moving and devastating rumination on grief and suicide. The alluring guitar work of the song’s coda marks a pivotal moment for the so-called “Northwest sound,” interplay that eventually feels like a piece of rice paper candy about to dissolve in light rain. Some of your favorite Northwest bands (and mine) have copied it ad infinitum. 

Repetition is the product of a band with a growing sense of career ambition — getting bigger tours, growing out of the fertile but cloistered Olympia music scene, expanding their artistic vision, on the cusp of signing a major publishing deal. The hit machine hissed all the way to a modest but solid spike in the band’s bank accounts. And for good reason: this was the album many of the band’s supporters thought would take Unwound to the upper echelon of independent music’s marquee bands. 

Unwound (1995)

Unwound’s initial lineup was just a rebrand of a punk group who had been playing together since high school, Giant Henry. Trosper, Rumsey, and original drummer Brandt Sandeno were considered one of Olympia’s great bands by punk rocker and eventual label owner Slim Moon, a group who broke up when Sandeno left for college. Upon his return to Olympia after dropping out, Sandeno and the band rode again, rechristening it as Cygnus X-1 and then Unwound before recording their first LP.

Here’s the twist, though: Although Unwound was recorded in 1992 with the band’s maiden lineup, their official debut, Fake Train, would be released a year later (with Sandeno’s personally chosen replacement Sara Lund) as the flagship non-compilation LP on Kill Rock Stars. Unwound would eventually be issued in 1995 as the only album not issued on the band’s longtime label.

The arty flights of fancy Unwound would become a cult favorite for are mostly in their embryonic stages on their self-titled album (predictably enough). The band’s early work most certainly fits squarely in the then-burgeoning post-hardcore category, featuring slightly cracked instrumentals (“Prospect”), periliously shifting tempos (“Understand & Forget”), post-grunge at a time where grunge itself was still very much in full swing (“Fingertips,” “Stuck in the Middle of Nowhere Again”) and a heavy swath of SST-indebted rippers. Unwound, for its chronological place and historical context, is incredibly interesting. It fits into the canon even though it’s not quite canonized.

The Future of What (1995)

Leading up to the making of The Future of What, the members of Unwound began to expand the list of bands they obsessed over and attempted to deconstruct accordingly. Wire, Fire Engines, krautrock, Stereolab; many of the bands their friends in UK riot grrrl-influenced punks (and Kill Rock Stars labelmates) Huggy Bear were putting them onto. The members of Unwound were disillusioned with the popular alternative rock of the day and getting into stuff like post-punk and new wave.

Arguably more visceral than anything the band had done before or since, The Future of What feels just as thrilling nearly three decades since its release. I’ve been avoiding playing favorites in the months of listening to Unwound’s catalog for this piece, but if you were to press me at any point in my life of Unwound fandom, I would say The Future of What is my personal choice as their finest work — or the document that hits me the hardest. Best, favorite, whatever. It’s The One as far as I’m concerned.

Working with Steve Fisk — who worked with them on all of their Kill Rock Stars albums except Leaves Turn Inside You, and even then he offered input as a close friend of the band — the band was starting to branch off into weirder directions. Fisk challenged them for viewing themselves as a “scrappy punk band” and prodded them to think of their art in a wider framework.

The intentional red herring thrown into Unwound’s excellent third album is “Pardon My French,” a brief instrumental led by a weird modified organ called an optigan, resulting in a track that sounds like waking up and eating rations for breakfast on a space shuttle. The minute-and-a-half-long version comes and goes near the end of Side A on vinyl and can be heard reprised and extended well past 13 minutes on the CD/streaming version, serving as a peaceful coda to the violence inflicted in nearly every other corner of the album.

Artistic ambition aside, The Future of What simply fucking rips. “Disappoint” and “Natural Disasters” are grimy, slow-burning bangers that flirt with Washington State’s signature sound of the mid-90s (yeah, the g-word again), “Reenact the Crime” and “Petals Like Bricks” leave no doubt as to why Sonic Youth would invite the band to be their opening act, “Demolished” is as catchy as any of Jawbreaker’s best work, and “Here Come the Dogs” slyly (if off-handedly) appropriates a variation of the opening bars of one of the most popular rock songs of all-time as a lead-in for post-hardcore chaos. 

New Plastic Ideas (1994)

“Fiction Friction” doesn’t get enough credit for inspiring practically an entire generation of indie-rockers. In the opening notes of the pensive guitar alone, I hear half of the Pacific Northwest bands I was weaned on. Though Built to Spill could easily get the credit for gorgeous guitar interplay, New Plastic Ideas was released six months before the epochal There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. So many bands have taken that one guitar figure on “Fiction Friction” to the bank numerous times along with the sad ennui of the song’s first section, which spills into messy, soul-draining catharsis and the woozy sputtering out that comes after. 

Not to single any one group’s work out, but would we get The Lonesome Crowded West without the sublime “Fiction Friction”?

The main thing I think about when I listen to New Plastic Ideas is how well Unwound used space. Not necessarily empty space or silence, because the lion’s share of this album is filled with sound. There is a sense of patience that takes the record across the finish line, a feeling it uses to tumble, to run, to glide underneath an open sky. 

That’s not to say it’s less dark or sinister than much of Unwound’s early work, because it most certainly is not. Many great punk rock records thrive on feeling claustrophobic. New Plastic Ideas roams free in an open field.

Fake Train (1993)

It’s telling that Unwound really started rolling when Sara Lund joined the band. Many people have written this earlier and better than me; there is a sense of artistry Lund adds to the band of already compelling artists, a drummer containing more depth and swing and flair for the unexpected than even some of the very best rock drummers. In fact, I can count on one finger the number of rock drummers whose work I appreciate as much as Lund’s (her eventual Kill Rock Stars labelmate Janet Weiss). Unwound’s celebrated drummer turns Fake Train into a beautifully singular punk album and transforms the band itself from a very good post-hardcore band into the visionary, influential art-punks they became.

For instance, the drumming on the opener “Dragnalus” is not only absolutely tremendous but ends up being the driving force of the instrumental track. Rumsey’s bass, as it is throughout Unwound’s oeuvre, is less rigid — and honestly, funkier — than much punk rock bass and Rumsey’s guitar comes in thrilling quarter-note blasts, but Lund’s drumming is so clearly at the forefront, it’s difficult not to call attention to it.

Fake Train is a brilliant exercise in dynamics, in texture, and in stretching the limits of melody and harmony. Album highlight “Were, Are and Was or Is” does all three beautifully in its nearly six minutes of runtime, but even on more uptempo numbers like “Nervous Energy” and the midtempo banger “Honourosis,” that creative energy is expended mightily.

Artistic evolution is such a profound aspect of the very nature of art. The body of work tells such a profound narrative about the story of a band. A thrill of being a lover of art, especially in such an easily collectible form like music, is you can experience the growth and mutations of an artist’s process over the course of years, or you can mainline a decade of learning and trying in a few days, weeks, or months. You can spend a day listening to a band’s whole catalog, or you can stretch it out between weeks and months. 

It’s an amazing testament to the power of art that the Unwound of Fake Train and the Unwound of Leaves Turn Inside You are the same band. The same people logging hours in the studio and weeks on tour; the same people sharing both the triumphs and tribulations of being a unit. It produced this massively affecting, aesthetically challenging collection of albums and singles. We speak of art from a distance a lot of the time; as critics, as people. But Unwound played the sort of music that created a true emotional response inside of people. Sometimes it was visceral, sometimes it was beautiful. But it was always there.

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