Reframing their major work
The last entry in a four-set boxed collection of Unwound’s complete discography, Empire compiles remastered versions of 1998’s Challenge for a Civilized Society alongside 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You, plus a bevy of B-sides, demos, and rarities. The set showcases Unwound’s risky but inevitable transition away from the post-hardcore of Repetition and Challenge as they expanded towards the experimental outfit heard on Leaves. Often overlooked due to cultural timing, Empire shows unwound moving away from the grunge of the 90’s and becoming a powerful influence for the indie rock at the beginning of the new millennium.
Challenge for a Civilized Society is seen as one of Unwound’s toughest listens, largely because it was the point of rotation between the clarity of Repetition and the sweeping, progressive nature of Leaves. Challenge is an exhibit of growth. It’s highly structured with an implied messiness. The purpose is indefinite, philosophical, and broad relative to earlier releases, with Trosper’s lyrics become more ambiguous. “Information generations paralyzed by movie lies / No solution to the pollution / Useless data bores the masses / Obsolete ideas meet human need for fantasy.” The album was a commercial struggle but is an interesting listen, especially standing next to Leaves, as it provides context for Unwound’s shift into their realized potential.
Leaves Turn Inside of You is heralded as a monumentally influential release. The album was the group’s first release without producer Steve Fisk and was the first recorded in their own home studio, granting them unlimited time to refine and hone their intentions. Leaves carries a melding of seemingly contradictory sonics, with their fundamental post-punk grind standing alongside lucid psychedelia influence. Unwound displayed themselves on Leaves as so much more than anyone thought they could be. The band grew from three to five members, allowing for denser instrumentation including strings, Mellotron, synthesizer, peripheral percussion, and more intimately woven guitar textures. Instead of deflating the focus, the extension facilitated Unwound’s self-actualization, and Leaves became the group’s masterwork and final studio release.
The remasters carry a real improvement over the original releases, but nothing too significant for anyone other than audiophiles or superfans. The value of the set is in hearing the definitive version of Leaves in the context of Challenge. The B-side/demo disc carries some compelling instrumental tracks from the Leaves sessions and demos from Challenge for anyone looking to hear a rawer sample of the band’s capabilities.