Unruh - Setting Fire to Sinking Ships
Unruh, for the short time we had them, weren’t concerned with genre constraints and marketability: all they wanted was to “play music that was interesting and powerful” in retaliation to the “stagnant and uninteresting” Arizona hardcore scene. They achieved this by playing “speed metal mixed with hardcore,” an archaism guitarist Ryan Butler acknowledges to You Breed Like Rats with a laugh: “Man, I haven’t used the term speed metal in years!” Unruh may never have had the widespread impact of a Converge or even a Cave In, but they were visionaries in their own right. Case in point: it’s still difficult to pigeonhole their genre. Sure, it’s easier to look back now and call it “metalcore,” but that’s a wide, wide umbrella. Even Butler isn’t quite sure:
At the time we just called it hardcore. But it was very much metal/grind looking back….We even had a reviewer compare us to Mine once and say that we had that "emo" sound….Most people nowadays when you say metalcore think of kids in sideways hats and grills. We were far from that. We grew up in the ebullition PC era of things but had a way more punk scumbag attitude. So, it was very much more different than the metal scene cause we had politics and DIY and all that other stuff.
Setting Fire to Sinking Ships isn’t Unruh’s first album, and isn’t too different from its predecessor, Misery Strengthened Faith. Both are maelstroms of chainsaw guitars and throaty pterodactyl screams, but sitting at eight tracks to Misery’s eighteen, Sinking Ships offers a true “less is more” experience, trading burst-fire runtimes for longer compositions in a more digestible package. Although it may not appear so at first listen, these songs are chock-full of accents and detours: the folksy intro on “A Spoonful of Tar” and the soundbytes on “Complex” are obvious, and Misery’s fierce sociopolitical rhetoric carries over, too. It’s blatant on “Layman’s Gallows” (“One hundred and twenty families / displaced in a fiscal year / How can you look / yourself in the mirror?”), but for the most part, Unruh nicely balance the political with the personal without ever coming off false or gimmicky. They’re at the greatest risk of doing so on “Complex,” which opens with the following exchange, but some intelligent songwriting saves the day:
Woman: Where the fuck have you been?
Man: I been out.
Woman: You’ve been out? Been out where?
Man: Working, why the fuck do you want to know?
Woman: Working - you’ve been out smoking crack again, haven’t you?
Man: I ain’t been smokin’ no fucking crack - !
Woman: You’ve been smoking crack! You think I care about this baby?! You think I want this baby? I’m gonna drop this fucking thing out the window!
A sludgy bassline drops in and the song ignites through a series of churning riffs, snarls, and heavy tom-work. There’s a surprise clean-picked passage that evokes the creepiness of Each Individual Voice is Dead in the Silence, and the track even progresses like early As the Sun Sets into doom riffs, a breakdown, and seasick tremolo playing, making for an action-packed finale. Elsewhere, “Finite” is a pseudo-tribal build-up that demonstrates a nice bit of range in their sound, and the ballistic “Disdain,” which seems to only get faster as the track goes on, pays homage to their thrashy roots. It and “Faded Tattoos” are the definition of what Unruh intended by mixing speed metal and hardcore, the latter verging on crust punk in its sheer ferocity. It contains some of the album’s most downright evil moments, including a passage contrasting monotone spoken-word and ballistic screaming - no words, just pure rage, like Tim Singer gargling acid.
Both of Unruh’s parent genres may live and die by their guitarwork, but the true star on Setting Fire to Sinking Ships is drummer Bill Fees. His work on this album is huge - the drums often feel like the lead instrument, dictating the flow and drama of a song as they propel Unruh’s music from one extreme to another. His speed and technicality shines on faster cuts like “Disdain,” but he is just as capable of taking the background on “Finite” and developing “Five Year Wager” from ominous crawl to frothing rage, demonstrating a versatility that has served him well on future projects with Structure of Lies and his longest-running endeavor, Antique Scream. His style on Sinking Ships requires the entire kit and contributes plenty of shock factor - it’s impossible to say what he’ll pull next because he’s just as comfortable with the skittery patterns of “Layman’s Gallows” as the nailbombing of “Friendly Fire.” Make note: it’s his performance you’ll remember once the album ends.
In an 2015 interview for a one-off reunion, Butler was once again asked the genre question - “What is the Unruh sound?” - by hometown zine the Phoenix New Times, and Butler’s reply was a tad more revealing than his answer to You Breed Like Rats in 2008:
The goal was to incorporate the sounds of Rorschach, Voice of Reason, Crossed Out, Assuck and Citizen's Arrest all into one band. I think we kind of created our own sound by doing so. I wouldn't saw we sounded like any of those particular bands and I can't think of any bands that I would say sound particularly like us after.
Unruh certainly shares DNA with each of those bands, but Setting Fire to Sinking Ships is unique enough to earn a place of honor in the ranks of first-wave metalcore. Internal tensions and a bad European tour were their undoing, but like Deadguy before them, they ultimately went out on top.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!