The word "extreme" has become a press release staple in the past couple of years, as more and more bands try to push more and more envelopes of taste and musical stricture in the quest to latch onto something new, or at least something interesting enough to sell a few records. Not too surprisingly, the word's been beaten so far into the ground that there's now precious little meaning connected to it. Gwar is extreme. Marilyn Manson is extreme. The band Extreme quite likely thinks of itself as extreme. None of these extreme bands ever bother to qualify their extremity by saying that they're extremely talented or anything, which is a welcome touch of honesty, but continues to beg the question of just what's so damned extreme about any of them.
Loud, fast and hard -- as in hard for most people to listen to -- are the descriptives that rush in to fill the void, and all apply to New York City's Unsane, a three-piece band that comes as close as any presently working to filling the bill as comic book rock, though it's important to keep in mind that comic books these days are rarely comedic. Instead, they're often moody broadsides of limited emotional response intent on making a point by driving it into your head over and over and over again. Unsane is up to that task.
The point is: blood. It coats the cover of the band's recently released The Peel Sessions, recorded in England in the studio of infamous Brit deejay and tastemaker John Peel. It's splashed across the grille of an Oldsmobile on the cover of the more-or-less simultaneously released Matador studio album Total Destruction. It flows down tile walls and into a bathtub drain on the cover of Singles 89-92. And it pools in a puddle dripped from the decapitated neck of a subway suicide on the cover of the debut Unsane, in the only photo of the bunch that's not staged, but in fact documentary. The music on the discs carries titles like "Urge to Kill," "Blood Boy," "Body Bomb" and "Organ Donor" -- most all of which sound like undifferentiated guitar grinding soundtracks to horror flicks that were never made, or killing sprees to be. Unsane trades in gore-rock, an unrelenting punk rock offshoot that steers well clear of the hooks and melody that present-day punks like Green Day and the Offspring have carried into the Top 40, and concentrates instead on an unrelieved hammerhead rhythm, shouting and noise. If the Cramps sired horror rock by combining camp and retro and Lovecraftian attitude, Unsane carries the idea one bleakly non-musical step further, eliminating the humor and taking its visual cues from DePalma on a mean streak.
Unsane originally formed as a college trio in 1988, with Chris Spencer (guitars and vocals), Pete Shore (bass and vocals) and drummer Charlie Ondras, and released a bloody string of singles on the Treehouse, Glitterhouse, Sub Pop and PCP labels before signing with Matador. Spencer and Shore shared a fascination with gore flicks from the start, and the duo contributed gross-out effects to early films by New York's underground semi-snuff king Richard Kern, and collaborated with then-punk cinema star, now spoken word preacher, Lydia Lunch.
The infatuation with violence turned real in 1992, when Ondras died a reported drug-related death at the untimely age of 26. Former Swans and Foetus member Vinnie Signorelli stepped in to take over drumming duties, and the band continued almost unrelieved tour duty for the next two years -- an epic road trip that lands the band in Houston this week for the second time this year. (Unsane's last under-promoted Houston appearance at Harvey's, some may remember, marked the disastrous last straw for that club, which closed its doors the next day).
And now, it seems, the roadwork has taken another toll on the band. According to Signorelli, who called in from San Francisco last week, bassist and founding member Pete Shore has bailed out for good. "Two days before the tour, the shit hit the fan, personal stuff, and we were stuck," is all he wants to say about the unexpected decision, except that the band continues on. Unsane picked up bassist Ian Dunsmore in Seattle, rehearsed him for a day and a half, and hit the road again.
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The shakeup may well mark a turning point for Unsane, though, since Signorelli says that when they return to New York at the end of the year to begin recording a new album, the band will probably add a second guitar player to the lineup, leaving Spencer as the only original member and augmenting the time-honored trio format. And with the horror-buff duo of Spencer and Shore split, who knows how the gore aesthetic will hold up.
According to Signorelli, "It's such a drastic change losing an original member -- they already lost one, Charlie, and now Pete -- we're just going to have to need a big overhaul. So now it's kind of like, 'What can we do with the blood thing?'"
Unsane plays with Stompbox and Biohazard at 10 p.m., Thursday, December 1, at Numbers. Tickets cost $10. Call 629-3700 for info.