Unrest - Biography
Indie rock is a fairly foggy definition for the sound of post-punk pre-grunge rock and roll made during the late 1980’s and early 90’s in America. It’s loosely defined by an ardent DIY spirit, slightly ironic tone and obvious disdain for going through the “proper” channels. As noted, it’s a fairly foggy definition, a lazy critic’s nebulous term for bands not signed to major record labels. It came to encompass a lot of very different sounding bands. And it still does today. That said, the story of Washington, DC band Unrest comes very close to defining the spirit of independent rock. Unrest leader Mark Robinson also founded the Teenbeat label. The Teenbeat aesthetic, along with other indie institutions like Dischord, Matador, Touch & Go and Simple Machines, would come to represent the face of indie rock in the 90’s.
Unrest was formed in 1985 by Robison and drummer Phil Krauth while still in high school in Arlington, VA. Beginning as a noisy punk band, the duo, with alternating bassists, released self-made cassettes on their own Teenbeat label. The band’s official debut full-length appeared in 1987. It’s a schizophrenic beast, alternating wildly between styles from song to song. More ironic tongue-in-cheek energy than serious musical statement, it's easier to appreciate the spirit of the band than actually listen to the music. Much later in 1993 however, Matador saw fit to release an expanded edition of this early music as Fuck Pussy Galore And All Her Friends (1993 Matador).
After the self-released debut, pseudo indie-giant Caroline picked up Unrest’s second album, Malcolm X Park (1988 Caroline). Almost as stylistically incoherent as the first record, Malcolm X Park has several fleeting moments of pop brilliance, hinting at what Unrest would later accomplish. Two years later Unrest released Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation (1990 Caroline). Again, the youthful energy of the band outshines artistic intent, but Robinson’s songwriting ability begins to peak through the fuzz.
Something shifted directly after Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation. Two tangible events occurred; Unrest released the Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl 7” (1990 Teenbeat/K Records), its first absolutely solid release; in 1991former Velocity Girl bassist Bridget Cross permanently joined the band. Her debut release was Unrest’s edition to the now legendary Sub Pop singles club 7” series, A Factory Record (1991 Sub Pop). Cross shared Robinson’s fascination with all things Factory Records, and the band covered four songs by four different Factory bands for the single.
By the time Robinson, Krauth and Cross recorded their first full-length together, Unrest was a different band. Imperial F.F.R.R. (1992 Teenbeat) is a stunningly beautiful, shimmering pop record overflowing with genius songwriting and clear production. Gone was the ironic juvenile prank punk and in its place was a band making crystalline pop music that could have been released on Factory or 4AD. Coming off like the lovechild of Big Star and New Order, full throttle romps like “Suki” and “Cherry Cream On” show that Unrest lost none of its energy transitioning to mature songwriting. The bass-led “June” is one of the band’s catchiest tracks and features the first lead vocal from Cross, intoning the words “morphine and ice cream.” It’s a perfect description of Unrest’s sugary and hypnotic new sound. Also, the warped textures of “I Do Believe You Are Blushing,” the lo-fi drum machine on “Champion Nines,” and the phasing guitars of “Firecracker” attest to an experimental streak that would make itself even more evident on the band’s next full-length.
The 4AD label signed Unrest the following year. Surely this put a big smile on Robinson’s face as he is a huge fan of 4AD, evident in the graphic design aesthetic of his Teenbeat label, as well as in Unrest’s music. It was a perfect fit. Two EP’s were released in 1993, Cath Carroll (1993 4AD) and Isabel Bishop (1993 4AD), both containing some of Unrest’s best music.
The same year also yielded Unrest’s next and, sadly, final full-length. Perfect Teeth (1993 4AD) remains the band’s defining moment. It’s a pop record of clean, clear beauty featuring some of Unrest’s finest songs. Opener “Angel I’ll Walk You Home” is a luminous duet between Cross and Robinson with shimmering guitars and endless atmosphere. Singles “Cath Carroll” and “Make Out Club” are both unforgettable upbeat raves. “Make Out Club” even saw some MTV play at the time. The album also features the first lead vocal from Krauth on the smooth and breezy “West Coast Love Affair,” showing a style that hints at his solo work to come.
Two subsequent singles showed up on Teenbeat after Perfect Teeth, but in 1994 Unrest folded right at the peak of its power. B.P.M. [1991 — 1994] (1995 Teenbeat), a compilation of rare tracks and B-sides from the band’s best period was released in 1995. Krauth continues to release solo work, while Robinson and Cross carried on for a short time as Air Miami. Robinson is still the most prolific, releasing work under his given name, while Cross has just released her first solo full-length under the Maybe Its Reno moniker. Keeping with the DIY spirit, all this post-Unrest music has been released on Teenbeat.
Self-releasing music before the terms indie or DIY were common currency, Mark Robinson and his Unrest bandmates became pillars of the 90’s indie rock community. And as Unrest moved from playful punk to one of the most brilliant, if slightly short-lived indie pop bands of its era, the band was able to retain its sense of self-sustaining spirit and punk ideals, coming to define what it means to be indie rock in America, all the way.