This writer bought the D.C.-area band Unrest’s 1992 album Imperial f.f.r.r. solely based on a glowing review; little did he know at the time, in the early ’90s, that it would feed a continuing obsession, leading to this moment in 2015, drinking coffee from an Imperial f.f.r.r. coffee mug (yes—he is typing this sentence with one hand just to make it a true statement).
In addition to the 1992 original U.S. CD, in the intervening years he had purchased the album as a U.K. import (on the 4AD imprint Guernica, with bonus tracks) and its 2005 remastered “Deluxe Edition” (with even more bonus tracks), and now, he holds the remastered-for-vinyl 2015 reissue on white vinyl, available with or without the aforementioned coffee mug.
Founding members guitarist Mark Robinson and drummer Phil Krauth, added bassist Bridget Cross after several lineup changes since the group’s formation in high school, and the cohesion on Imperial f.f.r.r. has more to do with the clean recording aesthetic than the songs themselves, often wildly diverse.
Unrest has always been a diverse band, with love for punk, pop, hard-rock and peculiar sounds, but the group’s identity steered more toward the pop side on Imperial f.f.r.r. The swift, strum-happy “Suki” and “Cherry Cream On” are similar, with the latter explicitly expressing carnality with an intensely delirious joy. Robinson’s odd falsetto on the gorgeous, minimal “Imperial” has no right to work as well as it does, and the track ends beautifully with resonating wine glasses.
Imperial f.f.r.r. sports several unusual sound-loving instrumentals, and against all odds, they are actually essential on this otherwise pop album; the dizzying “Firecracker” offers alternating left-channel and right-channel guitar chords underneath the roar of sirens, and “Champion Nines” uses a pseudo-trip-hop beat with clattering bells.
The penultimate “June” is possibly the album’s best song, sung by Cross about her dying father with a transcendental, shimmering and moving ending.
There are many albums that we listeners love, and then there are the select few albums that we madly, profoundly love after repeated listenings (100+, easy) to the point where there is seemingly a biological connection; somewhere embedded in this writer’s brain cells are the exact tempos and starting pitches of every track on Imperial f.f.r.r., not to mention every lyric.
It may seem excessive to own four copies of the same album, but to this writer, something that has brought so much joy for over two decades unfailingly deserves such devotion.
Among one of the most maddening human behaviors, which social media can often highlight, is people thinking that they know how other people feel or should feel without actually asking them or listening.
The new album Radical Empathy, full of improvisations from the trio of keyboardist Thollem, guitarist Nels Cline (best known as a member of Wilco) and percussionist Michael Wimberly, takes its title from the philosophy that empathy—truly attempting to understand people’s perspectives—is a key to long-term conflict resolution.
While there are certain rare strains of modern improvisation involving the players ignoring each other, the approach on Radical Empathy is the polar opposite of that, where it is clear that the players are keenly listening and then forming notes from both thoughts and mutual feelings.
These pieces are largely leaderless, with minimal direction from Thollem, whose striking solo work often forges ahead with confidence in his spontaneity; here, he is more seemingly reactive, cherishing moments of synchronization like on “Pores,” which gradually escalates its piano/guitar interplay with both fanned chords and solitary figures.
Certain tracks like “Thinkers Mix” have a ramping chaos, with Cline’s soaring guitar and Wimberly’s urgent drumming that sounds like it’s hammering out three simultaneous Morse-code messages on ride cymbal, snare and bass drum, and “Thought Pools” is a complicated mesh with scampering, quick guitar bursts, bleeding energy yet never disintegrating into total disorder.
Other tracks are more delicate, like the haunted melancholia of “Rain Drips To” that tip-toes through careful piano notes as if avoiding to wake sleepers. One diversion is “Howled Ground” on which Thollem demonstrates a love of timbre by channeling his notes through boutique analog pedals, as if trying on outfits in a fitting room.
The kind of synthesis on Radical Empathy, with the players constantly absorbing and comprehending, forms music that develops its own personality apart from the performers, as if a child could possibly have three biological parents.