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Review: The Unsane at the Marquis, 5/23/11

With Holly 750 and Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire
05.23.11 | Marquis Theater

With very little fanfare, The Unsane took stage and immediately played one of its best songs, "Against the Grain," with that great doleful neck-and-body bend in the beginning that is one of guitarist and singer Chris Spencer's signature sounds. Within the span of a fifteen or sixteen song set, The Unsane played songs from across its career.

Spencer later apologized for playing long, but it didn't seem like anyone minded hearing a number of the band's classics. Many of the songs came from the 2007 album, Visqueen. This included a crushing, blistering renditions of "Only Pain" and "Last Man Standing."

Someone in the audience requested "Strangler" and Spencer said we could blame that guy. But once the harmonica came out to play the intro, alongside thick as lava bass lines and impressionistic percussion -- all of which went direct into the hot air blast of the rest of the song. This was made slightly curious due to the passing resemblance of the song to "Twist of Cain" by Danzig.

At one point, Spencer joked about how no one in the room was old enough to remember the band's early singles, and then the group went into a song that was uncharacteristically anthemic and bright rather than the cutting assault of its later material. The same guy who asked for "Strangler" started asking for two of the remaining songs in order, without really knowing the set list, and so the band played "Sick" and "Body Bag" before closing with the largely instrumental "Get One."

All on stage joking aside, when the band was well into its songs, you'd be hard pressed to find an example of a band that can create sonic heft to the same degree as The Unsane. Chris Spencer's vocals only really bear comparison to John Brannon but his band's music was not like Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas or Easy Action, but the feel of witnessing an unfettered burst of pent up emotions and frustrations channeled into song was very much present throughout.

Openers, Holly 750 sounded like one of those hardcore crossover bands that mixed a little early Motorhead in with the punk. It had the headlong pace of speed metal but the vibe was more raw. The band's set was reminiscent of what you might have seen at a 15th St. Tavern show in the late '90s on a night Zeke was in town sharing the bill with like-minded locals. You don't see that sort of thing much these days, and that made it easy to forgive a song that we were told was about "having your girlfriend pay all your bills."

The is clearly a band with a sense of humor, as evidenced by a song called "Cocaine" that it played in which one member of the band said was his favorite thing in the whole world. This was countered when the main lead singer told us that "you have your drugs and then you go to rehab" to introduce "Drug Train."

Apparently the band fired its old guitar player in the immediate past and a friend had just flown in to fill in for the show, but you couldn't tell because he seemed to nail all the songs -- even one he supposedly learned that night. Throwing a bit of a thematic curveball with "Frenchy's Here," when the frontman told us it referred to him beating up some punker for hitting a girl because, "You don't do that," as he put it. Irony seemingly intended. The set ended with a bang as the band cued up "Death Machine," the title track of one of its releases.

The trio version of Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire seemed to have gelled further for this show. The band has always sounded like it gives voice to the ambient noise of post-apocalyptic urban decay, the final screams of civilization dying. And last night, Ethan McCarthy's tortured, distorted, abrasive wail was like a cleansing agent for the soul. The drumming brought together nuanced atmospheres and set a hectic and brutal clip without crossing over into that wall of busyness heard in so much music from the realm of death metal and grindcore.

This textured syncopation set the pace for McCarthy and Zack, the bassist, to be able to let cords hang and roll out between ferocious outpourings of transformed rage and anguish. It was the kind of music, beginning to end, that was the sonic equivalent of social upheaval grounded in the kind of industrial blight that seems to grind people under. Clinging makes heavy music that paradoxically uplifts through sheer catharsis while serving as a bright corner, a beacon, of hope in one's lowest moments.

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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I've always liked The Unsane. But hearing Visqueen one day at Wax Trax was a bracing reminder of what darkly abrasive and poetic music the band makes. This realization resulted in an instant purchase of the only copy the store had -- the one playing. Random Detail: Ran into John Hruska of Double Plus Down and Fucking Orange, and Sonya Decman of Brain Police, the Symptoms, Tarmints and Smoothbore. Decman knows The Unsane and toured with them in one of her old bands. By the Way: The band had these cool t-shirts for sale with the name of the band on the back and something like a Masonic symbol on the front with the letter "U" in the middle.

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