The Anniversary

Leaves Turn Inside You Turns 20

Kill Rock Stars
2001
Kill Rock Stars
2001

When the first listen of an album makes you second guess everything you thought you knew about an entire genre of music, that’s probably a special album. The first time I heard it, I didn’t enjoy Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You, which turns 20 this weekend. But over the years the album’s not only grown on me, it’s allowed me to more broadly appreciate creativity despite whatever genre boundaries and preconceived notions initially box me out.

I first heard about Unwound long after the Tumwater, Washington band had broken up. Leaves Turn Inside You was included alongside music I already knew and loved on some blog or another’s Best Post-Hardcore Albums of All-Time list, so I had to hear it. I knew of — and appreciated — that genre’s forefathers, but at the time I was enamored with the heavier, weirder stuff those bands inspired. I can’t say I “grew up with” the wave of forward-thinking post-hardcore bands of the early 2000s, but as soon as I was exposed to it I couldn’t get enough. The complete lack of boundaries or restraint very much appealed to someone who had grown bored of whatever indie rock was predominant at the time. But a few minutes after pressing play on Leaves Turn Inside You, I wasn’t just confused; I was, for the first time, questioning what the hell even constituted “post-hardcore” music in the first place.

Like post-punk before it and post-rock a few years later, post-hardcore was minted as a catch-all term for music that’s fluent in the existing genre named therein, but utilizes said genre’s foundational elements in radically different ways in pursuit of radically different ends. But as was also the case with post-punk and post-rock, the post-hardcore tag was soon codified into something distinctive and instantly recognizable. You hear a dour, mechanical strut with a baritone singer and backwards-gated snares and you immediately think “post-punk,” a nine-minute, deliberately-paced epic with no vocals and a cavalcade of tremolo-picked guitars and it’s instantly “post-rock.” Even at its most stereotypical, post-hardcore’s segmented between the genre’s scuzzy foundational pillars and the cleaner, more adventuours sounds of its commercial zenith in the early 2000s. On one hand, you’ve got Fugazi, the Jesus Lizard, and Drive Like Jehu with their well-read, noisy, off-kilter warping of DC and West Coast hardcore aggression. On the other, there’s At The Drive-In’s cryptic assaults, Glassjaw’s improbably catchy workouts, the Blood Brothers’ eye-widening insanity, and the Fall Of Troy’s intricate mini-symphonies.

Leaves Turn Inside You doesn’t fit easily into either category. There’s very little on album opener “We Invent You” — not the introductory, two-minute-long drone; not the patient, circular guitar pattern; not the reverb-heavy, fill-happy, Dave Fridmann-esque drum sound; certainly not the trippy Mellotron strings — that screams or even whispers “post-hardcore.” The album starts out on an aggressively nonaggressive note, and over its 75-minute runtime only really hits full-on heaviness for about a minute at the peak of back third highlight “Scarlette.” At the time of my inaugural listen, I wasn’t some kind of killer riff junkie who hated Fridmann and/or Mellotrons (quite the opposite, in fact), but Unwound’s patient nuances didn’t explode out of my headphones like I wanted or expected them to.

Unwound’s early output is very much classic-era post-hardcore — the guitars were loud, the vocals and rhythms idiosyncratic, the lyrics intelligently impenetrable. You could drop 1993’s Fake Train or 1994’s New Plastic Ideas into Dischord Records’ discography at any point during the label’s first 15 years and no one would be the wiser. In reality, along with Lync and Karp, Unwound represented a small faction of South Puget Sound post-hardcore bands operating within the region’s K Records and Kill Rock Stars indie rock and riot grrl ecosystem. Considering their DIY cred, insistence on playing all-ages shows, and history of touring with artists like Fugazi and Sonic Youth, Unwound may have seemed like the genre’s new torch-bearers going into the mid-’90s. It’s harder to connect those dots to Leaves Turn Inside You.

Despite coming a long way from their original sound, Leaves has nothing in common with the Ross Robinson-produced slew of major label bands forming the post-hardcore in their image at the start of the millennium (save, of course, being a forward-thinking, game-changing album released between 1999 and 2003). Despite being closer bedfellows with Fugazi’s The Argument (another 2001 swan song), Leaves is weird enough to make any contemporary’s last gasp sound like a nostalgia-driven stand-in for a greatest hits album. Despite breaking as much new ground and inspiring as many new bands as the Blood Brothers’ …Burn, Piano Island, Burn, it doesn’t use histrionics or heaviness to scream “notice me or get out of the way.” Leaves Turn Inside You is neither a victory lap nor an opening salvo announcing a new-school heavyweight; it’s the most dedicated, intricate work of a band whose demise was imminent.

“We were definitely in a pre-shattered state,” said drummer Sara Lund said of the arduous months spent recording the album in a 2013 Maura Magazine feature. Guitarist/singer Justin Trosper and bassist Vern Rumsey formed the band with drummer Brandt Sandeno 10 years prior (Lund replaced Sandeno a year later), and if you’d been keeping tabs on the band’s output up to 1998’s Challenge For A Civilized Society — which introduced some avant-gardeness of its own — it wouldn’t have been hard to tell that they were planning a major directional shift.

Having worked with Pacific Northwest legend Steve Fisk on all of their previous albums, Unwound opted to build their own studio in an abandoned barn outside of Olympia to record what they all seemed to believe would be their last release. “Honestly, for me, I wanted to make a record that could stand as a final statement because there were already tremors preceding our impending earthquake,” said Trosper in that same Maura feature. The weight of this task, as well as the difficulties of self-recording, made for the longest gap yet between Unwound albums. After releasing five albums in seven years, the band took over three years to follow up Challenge For A Civilized Society. “Oh man, the recording of the record was actually kind of a logistical nightmare,” Trosper continued. “Just getting the studio built was this whole mess that we somehow made happen. It actually never really got finished, but it was good enough. Sara had already moved to Portland and during the middle of it all Vern moved to Las Vegas.”

The band borrowed instruments and equipment from Beat Happening frontman/K Records label head Calvin Johnson, and though handling recording and co-production duties themselves, also ended up enlisting another PNW legend, Phil Ek, to co-produce. With a bevvy of keyboards, synths, strings, vibraphones, harpsichords, and tape loops at their disposal and no time limit, the band set out to make something that was, in Trosper’s words, “psychedelic without being ‘psychedelic.’” “Most of those songs started with a guitar-bass-drums core, like our chicken broth, which has all the normal chemistry of tension and violence,” he elaborated in another 2013 interview. “We spent a fuck of a lot of time adding layers and screwing around with ideas to make the record sound how it did. But, no, there weren’t really any guidelines or rules.”

This use of “the studio as a songwriting platform,” in Trosper’s words, reveals that the biggest influences on Leaves weren’t specific genres or eras of music, but rather individual albums that rode studio experimentation all the way to “magnum opus” status. “For me,” Trosper said, “they were David Bowie’s Low, PiL’s Second Edition, Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, Radiohead’s Kid A, the Burzum prison ambient records [Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf], the Cure’s The Head On The Door, Beach Boys’ Smile, and ’60s British stuff like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Kinks.” That’s quite an ambitious range of citations, the type that would instantly turn me off if it appeared in a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young artist’s press release. But for three tight-knit punks who’d been writing and playing together for nearly a decade, that heady syllabus seemed to be just what they needed to derail their lockstep rhythms and get them thinking outside of the box.

What eventually emerged still retains the icy, unsettling atmosphere of Unwound’s previous work, but barely any of the spartan hardcore DNA. The guitars, as on the above “December,” are still spindly, and you could imagine them guiding the “quiet part” of a more standard post-hardcore song, but instead of focusing on abrupt dynamics, hypnotically circular structures prevail. The grooves are much deeper across the board. “Look A Ghost” begins gently enough, bringing to mind a goth take on Chicago post-rock greats The Sea and Cake, but as effects and layers are piled on, the song blots out its initial brightness. On “Terminus,” Lund’s marching snare pattern is initially accompanied by just bass and guitar, but even as the song gets wilder and adds strings and feedback, she plows dutifully ahead all the way to the song’s trip-hoppy outro. Leaves’ other epic, the penultimate dirge “Below The Salt,” is insistent in its staggering tempo, with Lund’s glass shard cymbal hits providing the only white caps on an otherwise stoic sea of Rumsey’s bass swells and Trosper’s gusting guitar. Perhaps the least post-hardcore thing about Leaves Turn Inside You is its almost complete lack of speed and the neck-snapping changes in tempo or time signature that so often connote artistic progression.

Augmenting the album’s methodical grooves is a trippiness that’s readily apparent, no matter how much Trosper desired to subvert it. “One Lick Less” manages to collapse the space between The Velvet Underground And Nico and Spacemen 3’s wildest moments, beginning with intimate acoustics and then exploding into shoegazey psychedelia. The Mellotron, a bastion of pysch and prog rock ever since “Strawberry Fields Forever,” lurks around every corner on Leaves, rearing up to its full heights on “Radio Gra” to welcome us to the court of a much more drab, morose Crimson King. And whereas Trosper at his most full-throated can sound like a less husky Mark Lanegan, here he’s manipulating and looping his voice so often that an Olivia Tremor Control/Apples in Stereo comparison makes much more sense, despite the fact that he’d probably sooner be caught dead than wear paisley. Punks and hippies may never see eye-to-eye, but if you’re attempting a peace summit, do so with Leaves Turn Inside You blasting at full volume.

The final gnarl of the album’s knotty surrealism is Trosper’s opaque, dream journal-inspired lyricism. It’s not quite non-sequiturs, not quite Cocteau Twins-level unintelligibility, but it’s certainly arresting in its phrasing. “Follow me in reverse,” “My meaningless is shining on the lies I told today,” “The future was invented and you might be the next” — there’s reality lurking at the corners of what Rumsey’s singing, but he laces everything with such caustic inscrutability that he could be playing the bad-trip version of a Lewis Carroll character. With every listen, a different line holds a new truth, but piecing everything together feels like a fool’s errand when catching mere glimpses through the mist is this rewarding.

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If the end goal of all of these “post-” genres is truly to take the pre-existing style in question as far as possible from its origins, then Leaves Turn Inside You might be the truest post-hardcore album of all-time. Hardcore punk prioritizes brevity, aggression, and heart-on-sleeve bloodletting, all of which are exact antonyms of descriptions you’d give to Unwound’s last album. The fact that it’s so successful in rendering genre tropes unrecognizable while standing on its own as a pinnacle of avant-garde composition and DIY studio wizardry is undeniably due to Unwound’s clear familiarity with classic-era post-hardcore, as well as the time-weathered chemistry of the band. A random pysch band couldn’t just throw in a few distorted riffs and jerky rhythms and make Leaves — it wouldn’t have the lived-in feel or expertise.

As Trosper and Lund predicted, Unwound broke up shortly after the release of Leaves. The story of their final tour, which was interrupted by 9/11 as well as Rumsey’s mounting substance abuse struggles, is brutal. They never reunited, and with Rumsey tragically dying at the age of 47 last August, they most likely never will. But how many bands go out on a note this high? And beyond that, how many bands spend years defining a scene or sound, only to throw it in a complete tailspin right before dropping the mic? Leaves Turn Inside You “doesn’t end with a sequel set-up,” said Trosper when discussing its final song’s reprisal of its first song’s melody. As an enigmatic reinvention of a genre already based on reinvention, it doesn’t need one.

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