The early 1990s saw the nebulous, scruffy rock of America’s underground rise to the global stage. Nirvana were the biggest band in the world, Sonic Youth were riding high after Daydream Nation, and a coterie of bands including Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Mudhoney had broken through in their slipstream. Despite its dilution of punk, hardcore and metal’s most formidable elements, grunge marked the consummation of an economy built on independent labels, local venues and loyal fanbases; the same DIY spirit of subversion that was aiding hiphop’s parallel rise.
Nonetheless, bubbling under the surface countless idiosyncratic underground scenes showed no signs of submitting to homogenisation. A particular hotspot of activity, Olympia (Washington) was incubating a plethora of bands, including Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, and Bratmobile, that would remould the base materials of punk and hardcore into new styles such as Riot grrrl. In the midst of this not-so-quiet revolution, local three-piece Unwound cultivated a sound which drew its component parts from both mainstream and independent spheres, resulting in a brand of riotous post-hardcore that was ambitious and authentic.
Forming in 1991, Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey, and Sarah Lund (replacing Brandt Sandeno in ’92) established a sharp, angular, noisily elaborate approach to rock. Taking leads from forebears such as Black Flag, Unwound’s roots lay in the break-neck hardcore sound, which rose from the ashes of punk’s brief first wave with a vengeance via bands such as Minor Threat, Minutemen, and Dead Kennedys, who took the spartan fundamentals of guitar, bass, and drums to a terminal velocity.
This extreme mentality didn’t leave much room for nuance, however, and by the time of Fake Train’s release in 1993 there was a well established, nation-wide scene of post-hardcore bands, including Fugazi, Husker Dü, Slint, and The Jesus Lizard, who were striving to expand the sonic boundaries of hardcore whilst maintaining it’s mangled aesthetic. This new approach allowed for a greater complexity of melody and rhythm, the creation of slow-burning compositions, and the use of spatialised effects such as echo and reverb.
Fake Train marked Unwound’s first officially released full length, their original debut having been shelved following the departure of drummer Sandeno. Sketchier than their later work, the album shivers with the nervous energy of a band still establishing the fundamentals of their practice, in a state of frenzied transition. Nonetheless it boasts a remarkably accomplished standard of songwriting, wrangling a torrent of feedback and distortion, suffusing riffs with a burning intensity, dancing between violence and contemplation.
Trosper’s proto-emo lamentation as the band’s frontman forms an integral pillar of Fake Train’s youthful, angst-ridden charm. Hitting a peak on the reluctantly anthemic ‘Kantina’, his singing, half sob and half scream, overwhelms the barely distinguishable lyrics and elevates the song to a realm of epic proportions, as the tremulous structure of the music burns and crumbles around him. Possessing an inherently rebellious yet vulnerable edge, Trosper’s delivery often lacks the disciplined power of a Thurston Moore or Kurt Cobain, tilting instead towards the frayed edges of The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood.
Instrumentally the band maintains the impression that everything could fall apart at a moments notice. Trosper’s guitar, which churns out memorable yet understated riffs, often threatens to engulf each track in a hurricane of feedback, seeping through the cracks like water in a sinking boat on the expansive centrepiece, ‘Were, Are and Was or Is.’ The self-confessedly inexperienced Sarah Lund supplies a loose, thrashing energy on the drums, responding to the dynamic shifts of Trosper’s guitar and Rumsey’s gritty bass with elastic flexibility. When these elements gel correctly, as on the incendiary ‘Lucky Acid’, the result is vicious; a pressure cooker of paranoia, hyperactivity, and directionless fury.
Whilst Unwound did develop into a more conventionally polished indie-rock band throughout the 1990s, their staunch DIY attitude ensured that they remained a cult favourite, leaving the mainstream grandstanding to bands such as Nirvana (who would record their masterpiece, In Utero, just one month after Fake Train).
Indeed, the Olympia trio never really aspired to escape the scene in which their music felt naturally at home, and there were little concessions made to the uninitiated listener. But to listen back to Fake Train now feels like a truly authentic way to experience the ineffable atmosphere of punk creativity that found its zenith on the rainy streets of the Pacific north-west. It’s proof that, beyond the major players of this celebrated era, there was a whole subterranean world of bands pushing this noisy aesthetic to its absolute limits.