Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover work that never got its due.
The creative process gets compared to conception and gestation fairly frequently and for good reason. There is the conception of an idea and then its maturation, growing from tiny artful egg to a developing embryo to something that must be expelled into the world, where it may thrive or die. An idea that is completed by its artist isn’t necessarily guaranteed long term survival, any more than a fawn is guaranteed to survive the wolves and bears long enough to spawn its own young. Viewed pessimistically, Fossil Records is a column devoted to artistic children that never reached adulthood (though in the world of art, unlike nature, there are a seemingly unending number of second chances at life, opportunities to go the cicada route and remain in a larval form for eons until time and temperature are just right). Viewed a little more optimistically, evolution is as much about failure and death as success. Our DNA is full of dead ends or formerly great ideas or traits that will pay off or kill us at some genetically predetermined point, why should art be any different? And there are few groups that illustrate all this art as human reproduction metaphor as well as The Units. Hell, they even sing about it on “Warm Moving Bodies,” turning human existence into a competitive triumph:
“Out of six million sperm cells
I came in first
And won a warm moving body”
The Units can certainly make a case for being the first sperm into what has since become a very fertile egg, forming in San Francisco in 1979 and becoming pioneers of “synthpunk,” or “dark wave,” or “minimal wave,” or whatever term catches your fancy. In concept they were predated by LA’s The Screamers (more on them some other time), and the two bands would cross paths regularly, with Screamers’ mastermind Tomata du Plenty even coming of artistic age with the help of legendary San Francisco drag art troupe the Cockettes. Both bands were heavily influenced by synth-toting punks Suicide and Devo, but the Units immediately accomplished something The Screamers never managed to do by recording a single and unleashing it for wide consumption.
Nearly forty years on, that single, “i-night,” sounds remains an alien artifact, a divergent musical path that was left mostly uncharted until the early ‘00s. Like Devo, the Units mixed a barrage of synth sounds with live drums and clever, cheeky lyrics but frontman Scott Ryser shares Alan Vega’s knack for cool, disaffected vocals and reverberation. The Units went further than disaffected cool, though, stacking incredible hooks on top of the bleak vocal deliveries and trippy concepts, aligning them closer perhaps to what Joy Division was exploring half a world away in Manchester at exactly the same time.
Or maybe the Units’ closest sibling was a little nearer to home. Throughout the Units’ lost masterpiece Digital Stimulation (double entendre is another Units trademark), Ryser shares vocal duties with bass synth player Rachel Webber, making the two a synth scene Exene Cervenka and John Doe, particularly when they sing in tandem on tracks like “Warm Moving Bodies.” Boosted by Brad Saunders’ exotic drumming, “Warm Moving Bodies” is uncharacteristically lively for a synth based song, more passionate than cold, occupying a jubilant opposite spectrum end from the nihilism of the Screamers and Joy Division. Saunders once told a reporter that “The Units have more of a party, folksy attitude…it’s music for the whole person, not just for the brain” and you can feel that in the band’s embrace of dense sound, from the dual layering of the male-female vocals and the drums. X pulled from the past to make their brand of punk more communal, assimilating country and folk sounds in their new raw groove, but the Units went deeper, navigating strands of musical DNA the western world forgot while simultaneously predicting where it would head.
Documenting an ad man’s pursuit of a woman he spies on from afar, “Digital Stimulation” mentions the “comparative analysis” the song’s protagonist utilizes to ensure she’s a romantic match before ultimately realizing swiping right doesn’t guarantee any kind of chemical reaction. Lured in by a need to “experience” something new and fantasize about a shared future, the man in “Digital Stimulation” is let down by the reality of needing to know a pretty face you don’t know much about.
The Units’ prophetic tendencies don’t end there, either. “Cannibals” describes “Lines and lines of people/Waiting for a victim,” condemning the masses as a “generation of cannibals.” The social media parallels only continue, as Ryser and Webber take these digital vampires to task, laying into the hypocrisy of these fiends as they wait to be discovered and uncovered themselves, all set to one of the band’s most blatantly punk tracks, filled as it is with guitar-like synth wails and call and response shouts.
This summer, the boutique revivalist label Futurismo Records is reportedly reissuing Digital Stimulation, and unsurprisingly Futurismo’s roster reads like a who’s who of unfairly forgotten pioneers, from James Chance to fellow San Fran expats Our Daughter’s Wedding. If it happens (and given the Units’ bizarre history, that’s unfortunately still a big if), maybe the Units will move from being a sperm that won a warm moving body to a body that’s finally allowed to be recognized.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover