These days, heavy guitars and macabre imagery seem as closely associated as chocolate and peanut butter. The horror-obsessed riff-slingers in Cannibal Corpse, Slayer and Genitorturers have transformed certain sections of the world's record bins into pus-soaked morgues, thanks to their sordid tales of decapitation, dismemberment and disembowelments. The problem is that while in theory murder and metal make for a logical pairing, most of these unholy alliances come across as being cartoony and, well, a little stupid, no matter how high the body count.
Enter the Unsane. On paper, this bruising, New York-based noise trio could easily be confused with the average slice-and-dice outfit: Its compositions are loud and abrasive, its lyrics are sordid and its album covers resemble scenes from a Quentin Tarantino flick. (Atlantic Records, the parent company of Matador, Unsane's label, requires the act to repackage discs ordered by "family" outlets such as K mart and Target if those stores' corporate buyers feel the artwork is too offensive.) Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes readily apparent that the members of Unsane--guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer, bassist Pete Shore and drummer Vinnie Signorelli--are more than just a pack of comic-book-loving metalheads. Rather, they are musical splatter artists of the highest order.
"Me and Pete have always been gore-hounds," Spencer announces. "Before we even started this band, we were doing rubber effects for a few underground movies and stuff. Like, we did a thing called a `Columbian necktie' for one of [indie director] Richard Kern's movies." This lurid makeover, he explains, made it appear as if a cast member's entrails were dangling from his throat in an approximation of the aforementioned article of men's apparel. "There was blood and shit shooting all over the place," he says, a hint of pride in his voice. "It was pretty fucking intense."
Spencer and his cohorts apply morbid handiwork with equal vigor on their new Matador/Atlantic long player, Total Destruction. Emblazoned with a rather spooky-looking photo of a grisly automobile accident (conceived by Shore and Boss Hog bassist Jens Jurgenson), Destruction is an unparalleled sonic assault. Throughout the album, the threesome mixes the dirty, panic-driven urgency of Jesus Lizard with the punishing methodism of Ministry to create a violent soundscape that smacks its listeners like a sharp punch to the kidney. The album's first single, "Body Bomb," is particularly indicative of Unsane's modus operandi: The tune plods along at a monolithic pace that would suggest the Melvins if Buzz Osbourne had an obsessive fondness for plastic explosives.
Appropriately, the video that accompanies the song is supremely diabolical. Directed by Kern (Evil Dead director Sam Raimi is said to have declined the invitation), Spencer says the video is a "Taxi Driver-esque" look at a guy who "hates things enough to build a bomb and actually go out and do some real damage. In the video, Natz [from the New York rock outlaws Cop Shoot Cop] plays this guy that starts out watching all this violence and stock footage of explosions on TV. Then the next thing you know, he's doing push-ups and building a bomb in his apartment. It ends with the guy going into the World Trade Center with a bomb strapped to his body and blowing the place sky-high.
"I don't think [the video] has gone over too big here in New York," he continues, laughing. The clip hasn't exactly been a hit with the programmers at MTV, either: The network has banned the video due to its sensitive political content.
The members of Unsane have never had much luck pleasing the mainstream populace. When Spencer and Shore first started playing together at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, the rest of the attending student body found their deliberately clamorous noodlings to be about as enjoyable as an aneurysm. Fortunately, punk crowds in the Big Apple proved more receptive. As a result, the original members of the group--Spencer, Shore and drummer Charles Ondras--packed their bags and moved to New York City's crime-riddled Lower East Side, where they played alongside such prominent musical butchers as Sonic Youth, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Surgery. Matador proprietor Gerard Cosloy discovered the group at one of these performances, leading to the 1991 release of the band's self-titled label debut. Singles 89-92, a collection of Unsane's earlier seven-inch material, followed a year later.
Shortly thereafter, Unsane suffered a major calamity: Ondras died of a heroin overdose while attending the 1992 New Music Seminar in New York City. Although Ondras's death was a tragic loss for the band, Spencer says finding his replacement proved equally taxing. "It was really weird [without Charles]," he recalls. "We tried out this other guy from Boston for a while--and it just was not happening. We brought him down to our neighborhood, and he told us that he was so nervous he couldn't sleep the next night. He was throwing up and stuff because he was so scared. So we pretty much gave up on him and he went back to Boston."
In an effort to salvage their upcoming European tour, Spencer and Shore recruited longtime acquaintance/ex-Swans drummer Signorelli to temporarily fill Ondras's shoes. A year and a half later, the lineup remains intact. This new partnership has worked so well, in fact, that Atlantic joined with Matador to promote the act. A U.S. tour with the speed-metal gurus in Entombed followed, but Spencer admits that he and his bandmates didn't much enjoy the pairing. "[The Entombed] were really nice guys, and they were fun to hang out with," he remembers, "but I don't really think we've got that death-metal appeal, you know what I mean? They want guys in black screaming about Satan and shit.
"The first night we played with them," he goes on, "some guy started heckling Pete. So Pete throws down his bass, jumps off the stage, runs out in the crowd, grabs this guy by the shirt and starts shaking him around, yelling, `What the fuck is wrong with you, you fucking bitch bastard?' The Entombed guys were fucking scared to death. And I'm just standing up there going, `Yeah, I'd say we've got about eight minutes left on the death-metal circuit.'"
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Still, lack of support from this crowd has hardly slowed these guys down--the group has just released Unsane: The Peel Sessions, a collection of recordings made by the BBC. "One side is actually our old drummer, Charlie," says Spencer, "and the other side is Vinnie." In addition, the players already are hard at work on a new album. According to Spencer, the latest batch of material has a rootsier feel than its predecessors: "Pete's been playing a little stand-up bass, and I've been playing a lot of harmonica lately. We've always been kind of blues-based." In an attempt to comfort fans of the group's more bombastic arrangements, he adds, "It doesn't sound like what you'd expect, though. I mean, it's us using those instruments. We're not going to start playing jazz kind of crap or anything like that."
Nor do the Unsane plan to ease off on their confrontational live performances. Spencer is quick to point out, however, that while he and his Unsane cohorts may come across as a pack of frothing psychopaths, they aren't quite as aggressive off-stage as they are on.
"We're not really the mean-ass, New York-type motherfuckers that people think we are," he says. "I think we get a lot of that shit out of our system on the road. I mean, after you've sweated and screamed as much as we have, you tend to want to relax."
The Unsane, with Season to Risk and Meanface. 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 18, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $7, 290-TIXS or 294-9281.