*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #37, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
Unmaker is a tough band to pin down. This up-and-coming Richmond quartet draws from many influences — from gothic postpunk and progressive rock to experimental electronic music. With a background primarily in metal and punk, they were brought together by mutual frustration with the limitations of those sounds.
“We wanted to have a different outlet,” says guitarist Jim Reed. “We were in metal and punk bands, so we wanted an outlet that was exploring other sonic textures and territories.”
“I wanted something that I hadn’t done before,” agrees vocalist Aaron Mitchell. “I remember that,” Reed chimes in. “We were talking at the bar and you were like, ‘Dude, I want to be in a band where I actually sing, but no one wants me to. They just want me to scream and yell. That really bums me out.’”
The cure for Mitchell’s blues involved further exploration into musical styles that both he and Reed liked. “One of the early things we touched upon was [film] scores and electronic music,” Reed says. He and Mitchell list a variety of other influences they brought into the mix for Unmaker, including German Krautrock of the 70s, postpunk of the early 80s, and the experimental post-metal band Beastmilk.
With all influences in mind, the two decided to put a band together, and before long had recruited bassist Kent Jung and drummer Brandon Whitaker. They made a conscious decision to remain open musically. “We’ve always been open to exploring any influence that somebody wants to bring to the table,” says Whitaker. “That’s something I really enjoy about this band.”
Despite the wide variety of influences that went into the mix, Unmaker established a distinct sound early on — one that is difficult to categorize, but all the more arresting as a result. Mitchell’s vocals are a particular standout element, embodying a strong, melodic urgency that is deepened by the interplay with Reed’s guitar leads. The band has a foreboding feel, but retains a powerful, energetic approach to rhythm and song structures, further accentuating Mitchell’s dramatic vocal phrasing.
Lyrically, Unmaker is every bit as socio-politically motivated as the average punk or metal band, but their approach is more metaphorical, mixing science fiction into veiled commentary about current events. “Children Of The Clouds” paints a romantic picture of nomadic tribes traveling through the desert, but as Mitchell explains, the song is about a very real issue. “A lot of nomadic tribes have been almost completely wiped out because of the strife in certain areas, especially in the Sahara.”
“Used Future” gives a dark take on the progress our culture has made over the past several decades. “I think back to what I thought the future was going to look like now, as a kid growing up in the 80s, and what it actually looks like,” says Reed. “[It’s] an ad-hoc situation of the past and present. There’s futuristic stuff like our phones, but then we’re [living] in hundred-year old buildings.”
“Through The Firmament” draws inspiration from a formative experience Mitchell had as an adolescent. “I grew up in the northern part of Michigan, and I would sneak out of my house at night to go watch the Northern Lights,” he explains. “One night, the Northern Lights had basically encompassed the entire sky, and I had the most dreadful existential moment. I feel like that’s when I lost my childhood. It was a beautiful moment but also really scary and terrifying — realizing how very, very small we are in the universe.”
Early on, the band made the decision to make synthesizers a factor in the Unmaker sound. While synth sounds have always been stigmatized in the heavier genres its members came from, none of them bought into that idea. “Certain things were just not open, especially in the metal world,” Reed says. “If there were any keyboards, it’s not metal. [But] I never held that kind of bias.” Mitchell agrees. “I’ve always loved electronic music, and tried to incorporate it as much as I can.”
While Unmaker has worked with a variety of synthesizer players over their time as a band, none has become a permanent member. On their 2018 debut album, Firmament, producer Ricky Olson played most of the synth parts. “We were really happy with the way the record sounded,” says Whitaker, “but we knew that we needed to get out and play shows. And it’s like, are we gonna try to put another person in here?”
Currently, Unmaker uses sequencers to trigger pre-recorded synth parts when they perform. Their decision to move forward without a permanent synth player is understandable in light of their struggles to find the right lineup to achieve their vision. After Firmament, Jung left, and was replaced by Chris Compton. As far as the band is concerned, the addition of Compton was a big step up. “Chris brings a lot to the table,” says Whitaker. “He has such a powerful presence that you can tell there’s a difference to the presentation, and how rocking it is. It has a different energy.”
With Compton in the band, it’s as if a whole new phase of Unmaker has begun. Since finishing their debut album less than a year ago, they’ve already come close to completing another album’s worth of material. “It’s a fresh start,” says Mitchell. “The foundation is still there, [but] even the songs I’m writing are a little different, more serious.”
As a veteran band with years of experience in the music scene under their belts, the members of Unmaker try to keep their goals realistic. “Just being in the band and achieving the things that we achieve is honestly good enough for me,” says Whitaker. They remain committed, and plan for more in the future — not just a new album, but tours, videos, and any other opportunities that come along. “We’re going to try to just keep going at our own pace and figure it out,” says Reed. Watch this space.
Top Photo by Shane Gardner
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