By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — While many experimental noise-rock acts emerged from the East Village post-punk underground in the late ’80s, none matched the corrosive vitriol and brutality of Unsane. Founded in 1988 by guitarist and vocalist Chris Spencer and the original rhythm section of drummer Charlie Ondras and bassist Pete Shore while the members were attending Sarah Lawrence College, the band mixed the dissonance of Sonic Youth and Swans with an aggressive NYC hardcore attack.
Infamous for its graphic crime-scene-photo cover art, Unsane created a crushing, cacophonous template that would later be hijacked by a parade of far less venomous (or interesting) alt-metal bands. The band refined it’s bludgeoning sound for two years before actually playing in front of an audience, but quickly became an integral part of the vital New York noise-rock scene with contemporaries like Helmet, Cop Shoot Cop and Surgery. The band earned solid reviews for the droning, vicious sludge punk heard on its eponymous 1990 debut for Matador Records and a subsequent singles collection before being dealt a devastating blow with the heroin overdose death of Ondras in 1992.
The band regrouped with drummer Vinnie Signoreli (who has previously played in Foetus and Swans) to record Total Destruction, their first release handled by a major label due to a deal Matador struck with Atlantic Records. While Helmet would softened its edge after signing to a major for their breakthrough album Meantime, Unsane if anything went on the offensive, making a video for the song “Body Bomb” that featured a disturbed attacker strapping an explosive to himself and blowing up a building full of people. Not surprisingly, MTV banned the clip from being shown.
Shore would depart in 1994 and was replaced by current bassist Dave Curran, who made his recorded debut with the band on Scattered, Smothered & Covered, the group’s first album for Amphetamine Reptile Records. Unsane managed a minor MTV hit with the lo-fi clip for “Scrape” that featured band footage interspersed with raw video of skateboarder wipeouts. The trio would continue to tour heavily, but an incident where Spencer was attacked in Vienna while Unsane was promoting their 1998 Relapse Records album Occupational Hazard left the band’s leader shaken after he was hospitalized for major surgery and internal bleeding.
Following an extended hiatus, Unsane returned stronger than ever with Blood Run, released by Relapse Records in 2004. The band has continued to put out compelling new music for a variety of labels — notably Mike Patton’s artist-friendly Ipecac imprint, which released the blues-tinged 2007 album Visqueen, and Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles, who issued the equally acclaimed Wreck in 2012.
While Spencer has split his creative output between Unsane and his West Coast-based side project Cutthroats 9, earlier this year his main trio put out Sterilize via Southern Lord Records, marking the band’s first release of new music in five years. For this Friday night show at the Bottom of the Hill, Unsane will be joined by local favorites Musk. Built around guitarist Chris Owens’ corrosive six-string squall and singer Rob Fletcher’s unhinged delivery, Musk came together with the aim of injecting some real hostility into modern garage punk.
Early demos featuring Fletcher’s demented howling and hyper-distorted guitar abuse from Owens led to the band’s debut album coming out on Holy Mountain Records in 2014. A solid approximation of what the Jesus Lizard might have sounded like if iconic instrumental great Link Wray took over on guitar, the band’s menacing self-titled effort produced by regular John Dwyer studio collaborator Chris Woodhouse earned a slew of rave reviews, as did their chaotic live performances at clubs on both coasts.
While it took some time for the band to get together a follow-up, last year the even more caustic sequel entitled Musk 2: The Second Skumming finally surfaced on 12XU records. Introducing elements of downtown NYC jazz skronk reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City, the band produced an even more baleful cacophony balanced against the woozy, Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style lament “Weathervane.” Plaque Marks, a Philadeliphia-based crew featuring former and current current members of such notable bands as Creepoid, Fight Amp, and Ecstatic Vision, also performs.
Unsane with Plaque Marks and Musk
Friday, Dec. 1, 9 p.m. $15
The Bottom of the Hill