Album Reviews, Reviews

Unwound – Kid is Gone

Timothy Grisham / October 17, 2013

kidisgoneKid is Gone
Numero Group
Secret Ingredient: “It’s the water”

Reissues can be tricky beasts to tackle. There is wide range of reissue treatments, from the minimal rerelease, to a repackage, to a remaster, remix, and a deluxe reissue that tries to cast further light on the original document. Into the fray steps Kid is Gone the first part in Numero’s four part Unwound reissue project. The package, which could be more accurately described as an archive, features cassette-only demos, early 7” records, a 89.3fm KAOS radio broadcast, live demos, and the entirety of what became 1994’s Unwound spread over the course of 34 tracks and three LPs.

Often times packaging aesthetics are unfortunately overlooked when discussing musical releases; and for a band like Unwound, who have had a very clear eye toward aesthetics, it would severely undercut the scope of Kid is Gone to discuss the archive based on musical content alone.

The package creates a level of visual continuity with the band’s recent archival releases – the same rough chipboard and silk screen technique was used on last year’s Live Leaves, as well as the Record Store Day Giant Henry release. Although the current packaging feels like an effort at unifying an aesthetic after a band’s demise, it also points toward the groups DIY roots. The original releases, which are represented in this archive, had a very distinct DIY aesthetic. Silkscreens, letter presses, stamps, and lacquer etchings dominated the early Unwound aesthetic. Each LP houses an inner sleeve that recreates an early release, documented by the music on the discs, and with every LP there is also a flyer, or lyric sheet from the era.

Pulling the release together in both an aesthetic sense, as well as providing a narrative to the recordings themselves, is a very well thought out book that provides background about the band’s early years – as well as gives the listener a visual guide to balance out the package of songs. And in this approach, Kid is Gone steps beyond a simple repackage, and even beyond a lot of box sets that do little in the way of augmenting the music. Unwound, and Numero, were very thought out in their approach and the ephemera is just as essential as the music to the package as a whole.

Kid is Gone presents Unwound as essentially a high school band graduated and facing life in the post-high school world. The trio, and a supporting group of self-identified Tumwater, Wash. freaks and misfits, found each other, formed a band, practiced and created a unified front against the social norms that would help propel the band out of high school and into life after their parochial beginnings. But with that transition also came added influences, maturity of sound, and some real obstacles.

The set is essentially a document of Unwound in its earliest form – recently removed from the group that first saw the trio of Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey, and Brandt Sandeno perform together, Giant Henry, beginning in those early high school years. Over the course of the set the band’s early history plays out in pulsing, plodding sea of distortion, feedback and abrasive dissonance.

Kid is Gone details a band trying to find its voice. While Giant Henry’s recorded output  (recently issued for the first time by Numero) often times feels burdened by the fog of grunge that hovered around the Puget Sound in the late 80s, early 90s, the early Unwound songs find the band playing with timing and dissonance and noise, a trait that would help define the band as it matured.

In the set’s introductory liner-notes, drummer Brandt Sandeno notes, “If anything we just laughed about how shitty we were. But we liked plenty of shitty bands. We called ours Giant Henry.” Of course, to many, “shitty” maybe entirely subjective, but without question the shift from Giant Henry to Unwound saw the band cross a line from a very parochial, high school “grunge” band, to a band who thought about music with a level of sophistication that would help define a genre in the mid-90s. It is an astronomical leap from one to the other.

At times the band pushes through late era Black Flag-esque takes on post-teen angst. “Stumbling Block” has some of the tonal and rhythmic gestures that Ginn and co pursued on My War and beyond. At times, even Trosper’s pleading, antagonized vocals echo the same strains of Rollins; “Love and Fear” is a perfect example of a band taking the late-Black Flag template and fully owning it with their own take. For those who are already familiar with the history of Unwound this should come as no shock due to Trosper’s concurrent project the Young Ginns, whose name is a tribute to the Black Flag guitarist.

There is a level of tone setting to the materials of Kid is Gone, which is very much needed. The band existed in a very precise time. The time when “alternative” was beginning to explode, and well before the internet. Unwound ended in the early days of this millennia, at a time when they were at a creative and popular high. So for those who are unfamiliar with the early 90s, or even the rawest form of the band, the set may come as a shock to the system – it really digs at who the set is aimed for. While it certainly is the starting point for the band, it most likely will not stand as the entry for the un-initiated listener, the band has much more compelling music in its catalog in that regard.

Kid is Gone documents the band standing in a more notably hardcore-punk approach – well before they helped define the 90s idea of post-hardcore. But, Kid is Gone isn’t without its indicators of the sound that would help define Unwound. Closing out Side A, “Crab Nebula” might be the most immediate indicator toward a sound that most familiar with Unwound would be accustomed to – driving, repetitive and noisey.

It is an astonishing pursuit incorporating the primal hardcore and post-hardcore elements of bands like Black Flag when considering its context. In the pre-internet, pre-“alternative boom” period of the late 80s and early 90s, Tumwater, Wash. is about as far from punk and alternative culture that you can find despite being a mere few miles from one of its hubs, Olympia, Wash.

Tumwater is a small town of less than 17,000 people; a town that allowed its downtown to be mowed over to make room for an interstate in the unfulfilled hopes of a boom in commerce. Tumwater, like so many towns like it, is a place centered on the dominant high school football culture of Friday-night lights and redneck pride.

Kid is Gone takes extensive pains in documenting the realities of where the band members came from. The extensive liner notes speak to family history and shared experiences dating back to the third grade, Kid is Gone is every much about everything that happened before picking up an instrument, as it is a document of what these three individuals would produce.

As the set progresses you get a picture of a band picking up on its own sound, “Rising Blood” still holds some the 80s hardcore-punk references, but layered with heavy noise and arrhythmic time changes – it is a sound of band moving past its references and becoming more singular in approach.

The set’s longest cut, “Awkward”, pulled from an often bootlegged KAOS radio session, demonstrates the band’s well formed musicianship; a masterful blend of song craft and feedback. It is in moments like those caught on “Awkward” that you fully grasp how big of an imprint Unwound left on the 90s independent music scene. Although not always the most consistent band, they were often among the best – even at this early stage of their “career”.

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