Graded on a Curve: Unsane,
Amrep Xmas

It’s that time of year again, when carolers stand a’caloring outside your house and just won’t shut up. It’s also the time when musical artists of all types release Holiday albums. Said albums come in three types. First, you have the ones who sing the hoary old classics, second (see Bob Dylan), and then you have the ones who write their own Christmas songs in hopes they’ll become hoary old classics (see just about everybody).

Finally we have those artists who release Yuletide albums that have fuck-all to do with Christmas, or any other holiday for that matter. This is where Unsane and Amphetamine Reptile Records come in. Everybody’s favorite noise rock label has given us many a grating band over the years—Killdozer, Cows, Unsane, the Jesus Lizard, Dwarves, the Melvins, the Boredoms, and Lubricated Goats to name just a few. Why not give us their own version of an unholy night?

Which they finally got around to doing with Unsane’s 1997 release Amrep Xmas. It makes for a great children’s gift: little Darcy is likely to run around the house screaming “Everyone must DIE!” while wee Todd plays it continuously until grandma suffers a fatal heart attack, sparing Santa’s reindeer the legal repercussions of trampling her to death. No maudlin sentimentality here. Just musical mayhem that makes Uncle Bob’s traditional shit-faced tumble into the Christmas tree the height of decorum.

First there’s the question of song titles. Nat King Cole never sang a carol entitled “Sick,” Bing Crosby one called “Body Bomb.” As for “Empty Cartridge,” not even that pair of psychotics the Carpenters would touch it. And the songs on Amrep Xmas are rather tame. Cows’ “Peacetika,” Melvins’ “Creepy Smell,” and Jesus Lizard’s “Puss” are enough to make you vomit in the eggnog.

Hailing from NYC in 1988, Unsane have been doing insane things since the release of their 1991 debut Unsane. They make music that is one part hardcore, one part metal, and two parts unbearable clamor, which will drive all who lack the cauliflower ears that come with being pummeled by Amphetamine Reptile bands. This process generally takes no longer than two weeks. As for the wimps who can’t handle fabulous noise, they can always go back to listening to Tame Impala.

Unsane’s super-secret weapon is vocalist/guitarist Chris Spencer, who sounds like a unhinged mental patient with his foot stuck in a bear trap, although for all I know he’s a kindly home care assistant when he’s not punching people in the mouth with his vocal chords. If I have any problem with the guy, it’s a discernible lack of a sense of humor, which is what keeps sending me back to the likes of Killdozer and Cows. Michael Gerald of the former band delivers his hilarious story songs in a stentorian roar. Selberg is a berserker with a voice that is part menacing and part comedy act.

On Amrep Xmas Unsane delivers a set of songs that range in tempo from the slow and ominous (“Body Bomb” and “Swim”) to fast and furious (“Empty Cartridge” and “Straight”), but many of these songs fall in between. Spencer plays power guitar; Vincent Signorelli’s drums introduce many of the songs; and Dave Curren’s earthquake bass does much of the heavy lifting.

Two songs stick out from the insane Unsane pack. The first is the Led Zeppelin cover “4-Stix,” on which Signorelli’s sticks work wonders while Spencer and Curren do a spot-on reproduction of Led Zep’s unrelenting wall of metal. Spencer sounds nothing like Robert Plant, unless you’re talking about Plant on steroids and the world’s worst case of laryngitis. The other standout comes when Unsane invites Selberg to take stage to perform Cows’ “signature” song, the hard-hittibg “Hitting the Wall.” The crowd loves it, Selberg nails it, and as always it’s impossible to tell whether his demented child-throwing-a-tantrum shrieks are authentic or just a highly entertaining shtick. I’m not certain he knows himself.

A look of disappointment—or terror—will likely cross the face of anyone who unwraps Amrep Xmas on Christmas morning. Regifting is virtually sure to follow. But noise rock aficionados will thank you. It may have come out in 1997, but I’ve been enjoying it for decades. Amrep Xmas is the gift that keeps on giving.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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