Numero Group’s first passion-fueled boxset of Unwound recordings, Kid Is Gone, received as much love and care as one could imagine, despite the fact that it was a de facto prelude to the three sets yet to come. It documented the early years, before the band became itself, before their mission was clear, and before Sara Lund transformed their music through her iconoclastic drumming. That remarkable period of rapid evolution is documented in Rat Conspiracy. Of course, both sets are packaged by Numero in glorious cardboard and black-and-white, perfectly evoking the pre-internet age of underground scenes.
The music here sits at the intersection between “I like their early stuff” and “they’re starting to hit their stride.” You can read in David Wilcox’s 10,000 word essay and Sara Lund’s own liner notes about how the trio (Lund, Vern Ramsey, and Justin Trosper) mind-melded in the first moments after Lund entered the room. That casual jam quickly turned into the discovery of a new way to make music together. “I feel like we wrote half of Fake Train that practice,” Vern recalled. You can hear the energy of fresh inspiration on the first LP of this set, Unwound’s second or third (depending on how you count) album, released as the first full-length of the Kill Rock Stars label. If you haven’t heard this music before, it will seem like the missing link between Jesus Lizard, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth, all of whose influence the band manages to both confirm and deny in Wilcox’s essay. It’d be hyperbole to say they really invented anything from scratch here, but Fake Train is a post-hardcore template that still echoes forth in the music of Trail of Dead, No Age, and Cloud Nothings. You owe it to yourself to hear the alternately punishing and hypnotizing trilogy of “Valentine Card,” “Kantina,” and “Were, Are and Was or Is.” It’s a young band right on the edge of losing control, doing post-adolescent tension-and-release with as much emotion, more groove and licks, and less restraint than almost any of their guitar-thrashing peers.
And that’s just the first LP. Also included is 1994’s New Plastic Ideas, which is louder, both literally and metaphorically. On the best cuts (e.g. “Entirely Different Matters,” “All Souls Day,” and “Arboretum”), the band’s chaos is less organized, their ideas often more aggressive, and their attitude more vicious. Also included is a third platter of various singles and unreleased music from the same period. It’s not particularly notable, but on tracks like “Totality” and “Said Serial” they push their penchant for screaming, screeching release to further extremes.
Unwound would exist as a band for eight more years, but much of that time would be spent expanding their sound and deconstructing their own music-making process, moving away from the purity of these recorded statements, and coping with growing tensions amongst the bandmates. Rat Conspiracy represents the band at their peak of both heart and abandon. Of course, I say that now. No doubt Numero will make a powerful case for thinking otherwise with their next comprehensive repackaging of Unwound’s ever more essential records.