Super Unison – Stella

3 out of 5

Label: Deathwish

Produced by: Steve Albini

Hardcore label Deathwish is notable amongst its peers for having a pretty reliably consistent roster of impressive acts, swirling around the genre and leaning variably toward something more metal, or acoustic, or experimental, etc.  However, they also have a pretty deep roster, and frequent releases, which makes that consistency impressive, but also makes it that much harder to stand out if you pick up a batch of DW records at a time, as I tend to.

It’s such a hard way of life when you have too much good music to select from, and my listening habits have led me to letting my ears decide what merits closer attention.  This should be a ‘duh’ statement, but back in my lazy days when I’d buy one album that’d last me for months, replaying discs / cassettes was… expected.  Now, though, only if a tune wheedles its way definitively into my earholes does it get further chances.  It’s a bit more refined than that – I do try to give everything some repeats, just in case – but nonetheless, it’s always especially pleasant when something just immediately grabs me, which Super Unison’s ‘Auto‘ absolutely did.

I didn’t have any history with vocalist Meghan O’Neil’s prior band, PUNCH; a few bandcamp listens helped to remedy that.  SU’s combination of that band’s hardcore thrash with some punky swagger and O’Neil’s approachable, intelligent lyrics formed something that felt refreshing and direct amongst a lot of yelly groups.  One criticism I did have was that the group occasionally – no pun intended, seriously – lacked punch.  I could’ve pitched this as partially producer Jack Shirley’s responsibility, as its something I’ve noticed on other releases he’s helmed, and so if you had told me you were pairing SU up with Steve Albini for their followup, Stella, well, I would’ve banked on that being a perfect choice to add the extra oomph I sought.

…Unless the group decides to go another way with their song styles, and a way that’s not befitting of Albini’s style.

Albini, classically, likes to mic it up and let a group rip.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t fiddle with things thereafter.  On many of his classic albums – and on his own projects – he loves low end and reverb high in his mix, that sounds like it’d be a great thing for the punky, swaggery Super Unison, except the group has gone whole-hog on the hardcore shtick with Stella, and, frankly, that’s not something I think Steve handles that well.  It’s a double whammy: SU no longer sounds quite as unique as they initially did, and then they’re recorded like a 90s grunge album, which undermines the power of their sound.

When the tracks lean more into punky, stop-start riffing, and O’Neil uses her throat powers to punctuate – see The Snake – it’s perfect.  It’s what I wanted from this pairing.  But more often than not, the group seems to want to indulge in the “classic” sounds their producer could support – murky breakdowns and divergences; heavily reverbed, slowed down passages – and it falls rather flat.

I do like the direction O’Neil took with her lyrics, which seem that much more serious and personal and admittedly fit the hardcore / grunge template that’s being mined, but by the same token, the song structures, now more typical alongside their Deathwish brethren, render this work somewhat moot: it’s just angry telling.

To be clear, Super Unison still easily stands alongside all of the quality stuff Deathwish puts out, and there are tracks on Stella that juggle in their earlier punk and thrash influences with the raw sound of the production incredibly excitingly.  However, it is, on the whole, a much less distinctive piece of work than Auto, and that’s an extra notch of disappointment given the potential of this team up.