By definition, grindcore is an abrasive form of music. It's fast, harsh and noisy, residing somewhere between metal and punk, and inevitably confusing fans of both. Born out of punk's mid-'80s search for an identity that the thrash metalers were co-opting at the time, its musical message remains intact. It's been 13 years since Birmingham, England's Napalm Death released the seminal Scum, and the fury is still there, if confused by genre.
Unruh is one of the Valley's foremost exponents of grindcore. They're a furious and uncompromising quintet defined by the screaming, often incomprehensible vocalizing of gangly front man Mike Edwards. Yet for all its sonic confrontation, this band tends to get as many questions about its name as its frightening musical content.
"'Unruh' means unrest and riot in German," explains Ryan Beutler, guitarist for the group. "It's also for Howard Unruh, who killed 13 people in 12 minutes. He was a military sharpshooter who made a list of people who did him wrong, starting with his mom. Our first shirts said '13 in 12.' Both meanings fit the band. Brutal music, brutal name, I guess."
Particularly in light of the Littleton, Colorado, murder spree, such a cavalier attitude toward violence may be galling to many, but the purest grindcore always flirts with dangerous, discomfiting emotions. Besides, one person's brutality is another's entertainment, and Unruh consistently attracts a dedicated flock of true believers, who relentlessly spit out the group's song lyrics every time Edwards dives into the mosh pit and sticks the mike in people's faces.
Though the group's members are averse to musical categorization and wary of cliquish scenes, Unruh unquestionably features many of grindcore's patented traits: fast drumming, screamed vocals, heavy guitars. But the slower elements keep them from being so easily typecast.
"I listen to more metal, though I consider myself a punk because of its attitude," Beutler says. "I don't care for metal's attitude. I'd say we live the punk-rock lifestyle, no sexism, no racism, trying for social change. We have no image to portray, we don't do anything special for a show because our music carries what we are."
No recording could possibly capture the willful chaos of an Unruh show. "Being in the studio is fun; you can work out many of the songs that way. But live is almost like a spiritual experience to me," Beutler agrees. "I've come out of shows and the head of my guitar was broken and I don't even realize it. We're such mellow guys, all our rage and anger come out onstage. Even though we don't play live all that often, we'd love to do it more. I don't throw up in my life at all except after we play, from all the energy I've released."
Unruh formed in late 1995 from the ashes of a project called Uruk Hai. "We liked playing together, so we tried something new in the summer of '95 and auditioned singers," Beutler says. "We came across Mike, and it just clicked with him. We still play the first songs we ever wrote. We'd like to keep the lineup we have now and stop replacing bassists. We've had three so far."
Though the group's existential rage suggests a political agenda, Beutler says this group of self-described "scumbags," stuck in aimless nine-to-five jobs, is more about giving vent to small daily frustrations than unleashing grand manifestos.
"Unruh doesn't have a main political focus," he says. "Mike, the vocalist, writes all the lyrics and he deals a lot with capitalism. He's 25 and has worked crappy jobs since he was 14. None of us thinks that working is totally bad, it just sucks doing shitty jobs. But we've never disagreed with what he writes. We read what he writes, and I think he's one of the best lyricists in hard-core today."
The band's willingness to work has been tested by its recent spate of activity. They spent six days in early April recording at Mind's Eye Studio in Tempe with Larry Elyea. It was designed for an upcoming CD project earmarked for Theologian Records. Theologian is a 15-year-old punk label based in Hermosa Beach, California.
"We've been going full blast on new material for a while, and Chris, who runs the label and is in the band Pessimizer, loves us," Beutler says. "He's been calling us since our latest seven-inch came out and said, 'A seven-inch, 10-inch, CD, whatever. Let us know and we'll send the check.' So we finally took him up on his offer. We've had a couple of delays, though. At first, he offered us Alex Newport of Fudge Tunnel to go to California and record, but we couldn't afford to take time off work. Yeah, we still have day jobs, except the bassist, Mike. He goes to school and is financially supported.
"We were going to record in October, but that was a stupid idea. We weren't ready, but it should be out in two to six weeks after we send him the artwork. Theologian has a press and distribution deal with Revolver Records."
Because the type of music they play is more aggressive than most NOFX fans can handle, Unruh's live-music options are inherently limited. They're simply too extreme for most local rock clubs, but for a time, they--and the rest of the underground punk scene--were able to establish an unlikely home base with Tempe Bowl. Now, with that option gone, they find themselves at sea in the local club scene.
"The loss of Tempe Bowl was tragic for us and the scene," Beutler says. "We played just about every show there, and I've spent many hours there. They would book any band, and the great thing was that we got 100 percent of the door. That is so rare.
"Plus, I loved the feel of the place. We like to play small shows where we're a part of the audience. When we opened up for Neurosis at the Nile, we felt so out of our element being up there like that. We said, 'Hey, let us play on the floor since you won't mike all of us.' They said no. But we do like the basement of the Nile."
Beutler sees promise in the recent emergence of Modified, a downtown Phoenix art space/music venue run by Stinkweeds owner Kimber Lanning, but he's not sure that Unruh would be a good fit for the place. "It's also an art gallery, so she couldn't have a grind marathon there. We're friends with her, and she's asked us to play, but I don't want the place to get messed up."
Grindcore lives on the tenuous fault line between punk and metal, which is a source of near-constant frustration for its purveyors. Unruh regularly finds itself with mixed metal and punk audiences, and struggles to meet the expectations of both camps.
"Sometimes we play with bands like Dystopia, and 17-year-old crust punks are giving us dirty looks because we look semi-normal," Beutler says. "Then they start moshing when we play. The metal heads like the music, but they don't listen to the words and they miss the message. They don't care, as long as it rocks."
Despite the fact that grindcore has been in existence for well more than a decade, it's remained such a fringe wing of what was already a fringe movement that there hasn't been much public awareness of the distinctions involved between Green Day-style pop-punk and the scabrous approach of bands like Unruh. Nonetheless, Beutler and his bandmates are undeterred by the obstacles they face.
"I know this is extreme music," Beutler says. "It takes a lot for someone to go from The Beatles by your dad to go home and listen to an Assuck record three times. It's sadistic music, and I don't expect it to be accepted by the public like NOFX. Sure, we'd like to make more money, but that's not our goal. We just want to have fun playing the music we love. It has always been an issue with us, but it's more important that all kinds of people come to the shows to experience it and later on pick up a lyric sheet."
The band's CD release, set for early June, isn't the only major news on the horizon for Unruh. Before the year is out, the King of Monsters label will release a discography CD that scrupulously stitches together the group's various efforts, including the Friendly Fire EP, Unruh's side of a split-single with Enewetak, the Misery, Strength, and Faith album, and a track from the compilation CD Cry Now, Cry Later.
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"It will be called Setting Fire to Sinking Ships, and should be out in the next few months," Beutler says. "They're putting the money together. And we're also going to be recording a split five-inch with Crucifixion, amongst other things. And I'll be getting married in June, so we're going to have to stay here for a while."
In September, the Unruh boys will be going to Europe to do a five-week tour. "They're also talking to our label about a Japan tour, but now it's definitely Europe, and we're really looking forward to going to Germany, where this type of hard-core is huge," Beutler says. "Our discography will be released through Per Koro there. We'd also like to do an American tour. We did the West Coast last summer, but it's been two full years since we did a full-blown tour of the States. We're lucky to have jobs that will let us go when we want to do this kind of thing once in a while. My goal is to get a job I can leave for a month and be happy there as well."
But they insist that there's a lot of work that must be done to help create a sense of unity within the Phoenix scene. "There's too much dissension," Beutler says. "I grew up straight edge and hung out with kids who drank. Now you can't do that. It's too cliquish. We don't claim an affiliation to any style. In fact, I wouldn't call us grindcore. We have grinding parts, but we also have slower elements and we blend all sorts of things. We're hard-core kids and we play hard-core music, and anyone can be at our shows. We're just trying to break down the walls.