Friday, 15 July 2016

Album Review: Scattered, Smothered and Covered by Unsane (by Omar Ramlugon)

Unsane are one of those bands that seem to have truly lived a lifestyle befitting of their music, which I think I can be forgiven for saying isn’t always the case in the heavier end of the genre. After all, it’s highly doubtful that quite a lot of metal bands have really lived the whole swords-and-sandals tales of derring-do espoused in their lyrics. And if they had, absolutely no one would believe them.

But I digress. The urban nightmares spat out with hellish fury by singer/guitarist Chris Spencer resonate with the truly terrible things that this band has been through – a drummer dying of a heroin overdose and a singer beaten so savagely by Austrian thugs after a show that it necessitated the removal of internal organs, to name but two. As such, their music’s aggression is always grounded in sincerity, a bloodshot-eyed glance that tells of things seen, but never forgotten.

With this in mind, and with some of the truly terrible things that have befallen us this year, it seemed fitting that Amphetamine Reptile chose to reissue what is perhaps their best album, Scattered, Smothered and Covered, on June 24. Yes, I’m a little late.

Scattered, Smothered and Covered is not a fun record, just to be clear. It is a blow to the stomach, a hand pushing you nose-first into the ugliness and violence of the human condition, but somehow completely exhilarating with it. For all its noise-rock sensibilities, ear-snagging riffs and licks abound through every song, bolstered by the symbiotic relationship between Chris Spencer, drummer Vincent Signorelli and bassist Dave Curran. One of the heaviest power trios in history are finally given clarity and separation by ex-Halo of Flies member Tim Mac’s expert production, which clearly demarcates Spencer’s razorwire, Telecaster-powered guitar bite, counterpointing it with Curran’s gut-level basslines and Signorelli’s deft but brutal drum work; an engineer who miked the band once described his attack as “[hitting] the damn drums like they owe him money”[1].

‘Scrape’ opens the record with a muscly, slicing riff, but remains in mid-tempo, a stark contrast to the breakneck thrashing of your average hardcore band, giving the song room to breathe before opening up into its absolutely furious bridge. It was the lead single off the record for good reason, and it’s lost absolutely none of its impact over time, with Spencer’s distorted holler scything through the mix. Unsane rarely publish lyric sheets for their songs, and so often impression gained is one of an auditory Rorschach blot, but although you may not understand precisely what Spencer is singing, you cannot miss what he means. ‘Alleged’ picks up after, opening with a softly menacing bass lick and a distant mouth organ before exploding, which doesn’t seem the slightest bit out of place, but rather serves to heighten the mood earlier established. It’s well documented that, outside of Unsane, Spencer is an enormous blues fan, which carries through to his band’s music and lends it a unique tinge, a trace of subtlety here and there that serves to leaven the otherwise unremitting attack.

The album’s highlights are plentiful, its changes in speed thrilling; ‘Blame Me’ charges like a freight train about to hit some poor sap who picked the wrong moment to try to run the lights, ‘Can’t See’ lurches along in a drunken 3/4 waltz with a low-tuned riff that would have Queens of the Stone Age green with envy, while ‘Get Off My Back’ slows to a crawl, deploying the age-old tactic of sparse instrumentation interspersed with ear-shredding freak outs, with the sole lyric being the song’s title, bellowed by Spencer like a man pushed too far. ‘Empty Cartridge’ and ‘Ruin’ are sonic baseball bats swung in anger, with twisting hooks that wrap themselves around Spencer’s vocals.

But in fact, for all the rage and aggression, it’s one of the album’s most melodic songs that may be its crowning moment. ‘Blew’ mates a growling verse riff with a chorus that actually reverts to a major key; with a ringing arpegiatted riff that sings through the wall of guitar. Spencer’s vocals are, relatively speaking, at their most restrained here, and while undoubtedly as impactful as everything around it, ‘Blew’ only serves to highlight Unsane’s knowledge of the value in light and shade.

In short, it’s a classic. If your tastes lie on the heavier end of the musical spectrum, or even if you just dabble in it from time to time, pick this up. It might just surprise you. Unsane are a law unto themselves.

Like Unsane here: