Unsane: live review

Unsane & Smiler
Bristol, The Fleece
July 2011

I’ve woken up with a headache. I almost never get a headache. Can’t be a result of the alcohol I drunk last night as I didn’t drink any alcohol last night. Like the best of venues The Fleece in Bristol has huge water jugs on the bar of which I availed myself oft & frequent during the evening. This means, I guess, the headache must have been the result of the band. You’re thinking I’m an idiot & of course it was the band. You would be right to think that for most people, but only twice before in my life have I woken post gig with a headache. Once was Swans at Leeds Poly during their Children Of God period, the tour for which the expression “I was knocked over by the WALL OF SOUND” was invented. The other was a Rise Against gig when my head was, for the duration of the gig, pressed hard against the biggest of the (stage left) speakers & feedback was running riot. People were rolling up â„¢ to use as emergency earplugs. Like an idiot I turned down the offer someone made to give me a couple of their papers. “I never get headaches” I beamed, only to later find out that these had been famous last words.

So, Unsane. Formed in 1988 in New York City, (around the same time as The Jesus Lizard, a band who Unsane are regularly compared to) they were part of that amazing post-post No Wave group of artists that were tearing up NYC’s East Village at the time. (Of course we didn’t actually know at the time that what they were doing was “tearing it up” as the expression, as used in this situation, has only been around a few years). Their peers, apart from the aforementioned Jesus Lizard, were Pussy Galore, Helmet, Boss Hog etc. Categories to describe them invariably include the word “noise” in one form or another. Noise rock, noisecore, noise metal, noisy noise (I made that one up, full disclosure fans) or, probably most accurately, just plain Noise. They came to my attention, and I’m guessing most of your collective attentions, through John Peel’s hearty endorsement. Not only did he endorse them but he also got them into Maida Vale for three memorable sessions. The first two of these sessions were collected together & put out as an official release which you should all own.

And now here we are in 2011 & there they are, still as ferocious & energy packed & downright noisy as ever. Support came from the excellent South Wales band Smiler. Don’t confuse them with the hip-hop artist of the same name like a lot of the people who leave comments on Smiler’s Myspace do. They play that energetic brand of short, fast, balls to the floor hardcore that’s been around since Minor Threat first snarled into existence. Having said that though, I was thinking more Gorilla Biscuits/Cerebral Ballzy than Minor Threat, a more derivative hardcore sound than that of MT who to me still have a sound all of their own. They were pretty much an ideal support band for Unsane, though I do wonder how many similar such bands Unsane must’ve seen during their 23 years existence. (To answer my own question “Probably lots, but none from South Wales”).

So, they finished, we sipped our water & waited, full of expectation, for Unsane. I now know the level of expectation I was full of was rather less than it should’ve been. They came to the stage to the tune of some low droning electronic beats. Then they said hello. Then they played. And when I say play I do, to steal from twitter & to denote emphasis, mean *play*. Seriously play. And they don’t just play loud. It’s easy to assume that bands of Unsane’s ilk play so fast, hard & furiously to hide a lack of talent. This is poppycock. These guys are, individually, seriously talented musicians & as a collective are as tight as can be. In particular Dave Curran’s bass playing seriously blew me away. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was dancing so hard I wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off his seriously nimble fingers flying along the neck of his guitar. He reminded me very much of Mike Watt’s slightly younger brother, not only in looks but also in playing. One talented guy. Having said that both Chris Spencer on vocals & guitar (regularly doing some weird twisty thing with his guitar that coaxed out of the thing a sound you’ve probably never heard before) & Vinnie Signorelli on rhythm also have mad skillzzz.

They played a really long set in which they invested themselves 100%, a set which spanned their whole catalogue. Among the songs they played were ‘Against The Grain”, “Only Pain”, “Last Man Standing” & “Body Bag” to name a handful, but to be honest none of the songs stood out as they were all equally excellent. The two exceptions to the rule that none of them stood out were the couple of minutes when they changed pace to introduce a harmonica & the other couple of minutes when they started doing a bit of a country & western thing that was swiftly curtailed with the words “Fuck this shit” & after which they blasted off once again into one of their more typical coruscating refrains.

The only downer about the evening was the lack of an audience. It was a seriously disappointing small attendance & actually made me a bit embarrassed on behalf of Bristol. These guys deserve so much better. I have no idea why there wasn’t a bigger audience. Usually any punk/hardcore band comes to town & the venue they play in gets seriously rammed. Having said that I go to a lot of both the punk & the hardcore gigs in Bristol & am regularly surprised that different audiences attend each genre’s gigs. Maybe Unsane slipped into a realm that was neither deemed “punk” nor “hardcore” & so attracted neither’s fans. If Unsane read this I apologise on Bristol’s behalf. Having said that, it was actually quite nice not to have to worry about mosh pits & circle pits & the like. Once upon a time I’d have been right up for the rowdiness of the pit, but being the wrong side of nine spinal fractures I now find them a bit scary. There was one guy who occasionally kept on trying to get a bit of ”Ëœphysical’ going but that was it. I kept on hearing his mate saying to him “Look, it’s ok if everyone wants to do it but if no else is up for it then you really need to calm down” (or words to that effect anyway) which amused me. They ended with a two song encore the second of which, “Get One” went on for ages, so long in fact that Vinnie had to call up drumming reinforcements & left the kit in the hands of their merch guy who coped admirably.

It was the last date of the current tour. They obviously didn’t want it to end. It’s so nice seeing a band who’ve been touring for over 20 years really enjoying themselves. They won’t have cared less that there was such a small audience. Eventually it was over. My ears were ringing & I was proper dripping with sweat & ridiculously happy following one of the most magnificent shows of the year.

I’ll leave the closing words to Louder Than War favourites Pulled Apart By Horses. They saw them in the Leeds the week before & following the gig tweeted these words, words I wholeheartedly agree with:


  1. Quran (4:104) – “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as you suffer pain…”

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