Review Summary: New Plastic Ideas is a punishing record with a solid foundation and a powerful effect on those who come into contact with it.
As post-hardcore mainstays Unwound descended into greater experimentation, the trio's sonic qualities gradually became more subdued over time. 2001's Leaves Turn Inside You bears more resemblance to post-rock and shoegaze, and while there are certain explosions of fury on that album such as the pummeling "Scarlette", the song's abrasiveness is a mere echo of the controlled chaos Unwound's early period was categorized by. Those who begin their odyssey into the band's discography with Leaves (which frankly is their best album) could quite likely be turned off or even appalled by 1994's remarkably abrasive New Plastic Ideas. However, I would strongly urge any such listener to keep an open mind, as New Plastic Ideas is a punishing record with a solid foundation and a powerful effect on those who come into contact with it.
Unwound's sophomore effort is an alienating and abusive record that's rough as sandpaper but also contains a heart of gold buried deep within itself. The mountains of guitars on this record, provided by misanthropic vocalist and bandleader Justin Trosper, are difficult to pin down due to how much they ebb and flow throughout the forty minutes of the album. The guitar work truly functions like an ocean, revealing itself at times as an abrasive monster, ripping through the speakers like a buzz saw. However Trosper occasionally pulls back and reveals beautiful melodies that can be found in every section of every song if one digs deep into the distortion. The opening two tracks showcase piles of feedback and grinding distorted riffs. The instruments work like a machine, but underneath the mechanized grooves lie extremely musical guitar lines, specifically on "What Was Wound", a two-minute barnburner that showcases Trosper's brilliant talents as a songwriter. Other tracks like the entrancing instrumental "Abstraktions" contain dreamy layers of soundscapes and effects, while "Arboretum" slows things down as the guitars lock into a groove and hypnotize the audience with incredible power. "Hexenszene" toys around with key changes, booming crescendos, and eerie near-silences as the guitars crawl around the rhythms like insects. The album contains no mind-bending solos or 17/16 guitar noodling, but I'm fairly confident that Justin Trosper could do anything with a guitar if he really wanted to. He opts for technical restraint, dynamics, and atmosphere on this record, and I commend him for this.
As good as the guitar work on this album is, the true foundation of New Plastic Ideas, and Unwound as a whole is the rhythm section. Bassist Vern Rumsey has had praise showered on him for the past two decades, and rightfully so. Rumsey's work on this album is impeccable, as every bass line he contributes has the ability to chill as well as intrigue. Whether it's the hypnotic opening of "Abstraktions" or the bellowing, creaky bass riffs on "Usual Dosage", Rumsey doesn't miss a single step on this record and to make matters even better, he's been turned up rather high in the mix. This makes the songs much beefier and intimidating, and as a result much more emphasis is put on the bass, especially in songs such as "Envelope" or "Usual Dosage" where the dynamics drop during the verses to reveal Rumsey plugging away at the strings like a robot. Drummer Sara Lund has a very mechanical feel to her playing style, rarely ever playing a fill. However, the woman can keep time with the best in the game, with every song containing an undeniable groove and the two men in front marching right along in step with her impeccable beats. Just take a look at "All Souls Day" which begins with an infectious drum line that punches with the power of eighteen Bruce Lee fists before Lund shifts the song into overdrive with the band playing a three-over-four polyrhythm while Lund lays waste to her crash cymbal. Lund is also notable for her ability to leave space and not suffer from overplaying, something many drummers lack these days. "Arboretum" showcases Lund grooving away by herself for nearly 90 seconds while Trosper adds an occasional lick. The effect is entrancing and allows the drummer to become part of the band's gloomy atmosphere. She exhibits jazz influences on "What Was Wound" and adds a taste of tribal music in the animalistic beats on "Usual Dosage".
Finally, the drum mix, and mix for all the instruments is brilliant, sounding powerful without resorting to ear-splitting volume. Yes, Unwound was loud, especially live, but the mix captures their intensity tastefully. One of my few complaints with this record is the way Trosper's vocals were buried in the mix, as his voice is remarkable in the way it captures the lyrical themes. His vocals are tunelessly resonant, emotionally numb and yet somehow captivating. The only problem is that one can barely hear him over the explosion of instrumental brutality. Also, Unwound's sound can be characterized by repetition, but on seven-minute epics like "Abstraktions" and "Fiction Friction" it can get to be a bit much, especially when the former song is an instrumental. Also, the album can feel extremely samey due to this musical approach. Despite this, New Plastic Ideas is essential to Unwound's canon and characterizes their early sound in a way that none of their other pre-Repetition albums can.
Recommended Tracks (asterisk signifies best track)
What Was Wound
All Souls Day