When an evening's headliner is a niche-defying noise act like Unsane, it's odd that a band like Sweet Diesel would open. Well, actually, their generic brand of catchy pop-punk made perfect sense for an extended evening of clubgoing: Much as at a restaurant, appetizers help you prepare for more challenging fare.
Unsane are niche-defying precisely because so few bands sound like them. Fortunately, the next act, Kiss It Goodbye, were at least in the same ballpark. With a new album on Revelation Records, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not, these SoCal prog-punks have an affinity for seven- and eight-minute jams with layer upon layer of crusty guitars akin to the movements of a classical quartet. Their only sin was the lead singer's habit of thrusting out his middle and index finger together while he sang -- an MC's pistol-brandishing gesture that looked ridiculous in the context of their music.
What followed was pure Unsanity. This New York band has been slogging along for almost 10 years but has never been able to nicely fit any of the contemporary (and limited) rock formats that the majors are so fond of -- which is probably why they'll stay at plucky Minneapolis indie label Amphetamine Reptile for life. Too lumbering and methodical for punk, not crisp and angular enough for metal, without sequencers or loops to qualify them for industrial, and far too dour for anything that could accurately be called pop, Unsane are probably best left with the looser term "white noise." This may sound like a one-note genre, but lurking within the atonal barrage there is a fairly nuanced palette.
Before Unsane even took the stage, highlights from Travis Bickle's rant in Taxi Driver were broadcast across the space of the Trocadero, filling the air with the cabbie's infamous anger: "All the junkies, the pushers, the hookers, all the scum infesting the city ... I wish I could just flush it all down the toilet." De Niro's monologue was appropriate as a darkly humorous opener for these veteran borough dwellers. However, it had a chilling effect if you recall Unsane's long-running fixation with blood. Recent cover art from Total Destruction and Scattered, Smothered and Covered depicts a totaled Cadillac with a smashed-in windshield and hemoglobin-coated dashboard, and a hammer in a pool of red, respectively.
Um, do we have a problem here?
Surely this study in gore is more Creep Show than True Crime, isn't it? I almost didn't think so when some jackass in the audience got cute and hit guitar player Chris Spencer in the chest with a beer cup. "Please don't throw stuff at me, buddy," Spencer said, mustering a weak smile. "I don't even know you, but I still had to almost kill my brother one time for doing that." Whether Unsane's obsession with violence is real or a joke or a means to catharsis, I was impressed by the way this minor confrontation was handled. A fan pays his respects by throwing shit at the frontman? For such screwheads I would personally recommend immediate expulsion from the venue, or maybe just a good working over with an aluminum baseball bat. (Just kidding.)
Like the '70s supergroups before them, Unsane redefine what it means to be a power trio. Spencer doesn't play his guitar so much as bend and squeeze it like the bluesman who's just inked a deal at the Crossroads (he does in fact use a slide bar much of the time). Bassist Dave Currin wields his four-string like a lead six -- I don't think I've ever heard the man just thrum a standard one-note pedal. And of course there's Vinnie Signorelli -- one of the more interesting drummers around. Combining the best parts of Keith Moon's spastic energy and Crimson powerhouse Bill Bruford, Signorelli has one of the most agile kicks I've ever seen. Listening to that bass drum is a feast for the ears even without all the velvety-smooth fills.
Unsane work hard during their sets -- like a panzer barreling through mounds of rubble -- so that we never see their sweat-drenched faces except when Spencer looks up to issue his jugular-bulging shriek. Not that there wasn't room for levity. Like all good New Yorkers -- pardon the stereotype -- Unsane are rabid hockey fans. When a chorus of hecklers began talking shit about the Rangers, Spencer bombed it out quick: "Naw man, don't even go there."
That was about it for the repartee. Seasoned as they are, the band are surprisingly uncomfortable onstage. Believe it or not, this is part of their appeal. After all, there're just too many lead singer/comedians out there trying to be all things to all people. At set's end, the boys veered from their lethargic grooves for an excursion into dark acid-rock -- a protracted noodlefest that was out of character, yet whose druggy nebulae of static and drone were a pleasing change of pace to the band's usual method of ending songs on a dime. The only unsettling part was seeing Spencer take off his guitar -- effects still running through it -- soon to be followed by Currin so that Signorelli was left with the task of winding things down. Besides coming off as a bit contrived, it gave me a massive deja vu attack: I've seen this little affectation at least twice in the last month from other bands. Well, it is kind of nice. Like parents tiptoeing out of the room mid-fairy tale while the kiddies drift off to dreamland, Unsane prefer to let us down gently.
With such a tidy ending, the band should have forsaken an encore. But when the crowd is pounding the stage and calling your name, is there a choice? Unfortunately, they brought out their worst songs for the welcome back: longish monochrome exercises that -- while interesting in and of themselves -- seemed to recharge with tension the gradual sonic decompression they had worked so hard to bring about. As Signorelli swaggered out in front of his banana-yellow eyesore of a kit, he boldly stepped to the mike: "Thank you for refraining from throwing H20."
That benumbed voice and awkward diction were strangely familiar. You would have sworn it was ... Travis Bickle.