The Units: History of the Units: The Early Years: 1977-1983
Community Library

“Synth music that kicks ass”: no words better sum up The Units' sound than those included in the release's accompanying booklet. It's a raw manifesto that's wholly in keeping with the equally raw synth-punk sound the San Francisco-based group promoted during its 1977-84 tenure. Composed of Scott Ryser (synthesizer, vocals) and an ever-changing line-up of drummers and synth players, The Units' anti-guitar stance was symbolic of a larger rejection of Western commercial culture, with Ryser and company disgusted by the instrument's reigning domination in rock (punk too, admittedly), nauseated by John Travolta's white suit in Saturday Night Fever, and repulsed by McCulture in general. Inspired by bands like The Dead Kennedys, The Units bemoaned the fate of the standard individual bred and trained to become a “faithful unit in the corporate wheel.”

The seventy-three-minute anthology, History of the Units, collects in remastered form the band's early singles, selections from its first LP, Digital Stimulation, and unreleased material. In some respects, the music's very much of its time: the vocals are sometimes delivered in a robotic staccato style reminiscent of a less hysterical Devo or psychotic David Byrne (“Cannibals,” “High Pressure Days”), and the tunes are spasmodic and jittery in that familiar punk and incipient-New Wave manner too. “Cannibals” shrieks with tribal fury, while the primitive punk anthem “High Pressure Days” and deranged squealer “i Night” succinctly convey the urgency emblematic of the era. But lest one think the tracks are simply repeated riffs on a single idea, the band switches it up stylistically in surprising ways: the spasmodic punk-pop of “Warm Moving Bodies” and “The Mission is Bitchin'” points in the direction a band such as B-52s would follow, while “Town by the River” is a jittery punk-pop instrumental to pogo by. There's also the evocative synth instrumental “ Bird River ” plus “Zombo,” which is more pretty synth-pop than angry punk, and “Tight Fit,” which includes vibraphone playing and an intricate arrangement that's almost prog-like. In some moments, The Units' sound anticipates the future too: the psychedelic haze clouding over “Run” doesn't sound too all that far removed from Deerhunter, and “Contemporary Emotions” is powered by an over-driven synth swarm that hardly sounds thirty years old. All told, the group's sound extends from the primitive plunk-plunk-plunk of 1977's “Red” to the prog-pop of 1982's “I-5.” Even so, ending the collection with raw and squealing “Work” suggests that The Units wish to be remembered first and foremost as a forward-thinking punk band.

July 2009