Time travelers - Page 3

Then is now for four different Bay Area musical trail-blazers
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(Michael Krimper)

THE UNITS Fate and a bond with the musician Bill Nelson once led them to share three squares a day with Robert Plant, but the Units were a punk or post-punk band. And like any great punk or post-punk band, they lived for confrontation. They played in JC Penney storefront windows and even performed the national anthem at a boxing match.

Still, when the Units invoked the smashing of guitars, they did so as a gesture of contempt towards that six-string signifier of readymade rebellion as much as a protest against traditional authority. Whether singing about burritos and how "the Mission is bitchin'" or adapting Gregory Corso's poetry to song, the Units, you see, wielded keyboards as sonic weapons.

The group's Scott Ryser has some primarily fond and often very specific memories of the keyboards in question. The Arps, the Octigans, the Roland Junos, and various Korgs and Casios. The Sequential Circuits 800 Sequencer, "without question the most promising and at the same time most belligerent" of the group's many "unruly kids." And his "sweetheart," the Minimoog, an invention "better than the automobile and the electric dildo combined." For Ryser, "the Minimoog sounds like god and the devil singing in harmony."

God and the devil sing in harmony throughout History of the Units: The Early Years, 1977-1983 (Community Library) — that is, when they aren't breaking down gloriously. Or colliding against the live drumming that distinguishes the Units from just about any other synth group. ("I just don't see how a synth band can kick ass without real drums," opines Ryser.) Nervy narratives like "Bugboy" and "High Pressure Days" reflect Ryser's background writing stories and novels, while the sprawling, gorgeous instrumental "Zombo," inspired by Walter/Wendy Carlos, sounds contemporary today. Unlike many retrospective collections, History of the Units avoids nostalgia — in fact, Ryser adds a blitz of contemporary images to the sleeve art. "To me, the best thing about our band was just the idea of it," he says. Maybe so, but the reality of the Units will trigger more fine ideas. (Huston)

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