There’s an air of refinement to The 5th Season, the new album from American quartet Resistor. If previous albums displayed the band traversing well-worn paths of epics, zaniness, and plain ol’ heavy rock riffage, this latest platter sees them gathering the best of these elements and deftly shaping them into seven sophisticated new compositions that propel them to the next tier.
Lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, one of the busiest guys in rock. Outside of Resistor, he’s also had a long and fruitful solo career, as well as being one of the main men in The Samurai Of Prog (a fellowship who unabashedly delight in all things of a symphonic rock nature and release huge works with astonishing frequency). I could continue rattling off all the projects he’s a part of, but suffice to say: he’s the real deal, and all of these outlets are worthy of attention. Unruh has long taken artistic risks – exercising particular bravery in exploring the range of his voice – but as the years tick by, he seems to become more accomplished and controlled. He brings a seasoned authority to this new batch of Resistor tracks, ably matched by skillful performances from bandmates Fran Turner (guitar), Barry Farrands (drums), and Rob Winslow (bass).
Truth be told, there is a little less fun exuding from the pores of these more recent releases (there are no epic sea monster battles here, for instance). But if the songwriting lands a tad more on the serious side, it’s done to great effectiveness and reflects the very human experiences that come with the relentlessness of time. These are rich compositions each with their own striking tone, but with enough off-kilter charm to remain convincingly ‘Resistor’. I liked this record instantly (and continue to), but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. I could spend an hour telling you what it isn’t, but the words to describe what it is seem to vanish as soon as they enter my mind. I just know that it makes me feel something, and that can be a tall order for musicians nowadays, when so much music has saturated the landscape, and then been made again… and again. I spoke with an animated and enthusiastic Unruh about this latest work, and about many others from his past (how he ever found the time for this chat will remain a mystery)…
VT: Congratulations on The 5th Season. It’s early days, but after quite a few spins, I can honestly say it’s up there with the best you guys have made.
SU: Thank you! Yeah, it’s personally become my favourite Resistor album. It’s hard to choose, it’s like choosing between your kids, of course. But if you look at what are probably considered the most important Resistor albums, like Rise – which is the one that’s got that wonderful but silly long piece The Land Of No Groove – and Underground, which was a long, serious piece… then there’s this one. The reason I think it definitely fits up there with the others, even though it’s not a big art statement like Underground was, is that I think it’s a statement of maturity of the band. There’s just something about it when I listen to it that feels… fully cured, compared to the rest. It’s the one that I want to go back and listen to again and again, more so than the others.
VT: Resistor albums always seem to have a different blueprint. You mentioned Rise, which has a kind of ‘epic storytelling’ quality. To The Stars is more of a cosmic theme. The debut album is simply a collection of unrelated songs – I think.
SU: That’s correct. The debut album came an awful lot from a template that I had drawn, and you can hear Fran’s influence really creeping in there, but it still sounds much more closely tied to my solo way of doing things. Whereas with each subsequent album Resistor sort of spun off into its own character that is an amalgam of us, instead of ‘me and friends’.
VT: Speaking of the debut album, I’ve often said that the opening track Reincarnation has one of the most perfect choruses I’ve ever heard. It’s a terrific little song, but you also like to go for the more unorthodox and extended arrangements. Do you find it more difficult to write a successful concise piece than one where you can really stretch out?
SU: I don’t personally find one more difficult than the other. A great line from Bono in one of his songs says ‘I’m just trying to find a decent melody, a song that I can sing in my own company’. As you’re poking around and you’re trying to find these melodies and ideas, something from somewhere coalesces and lands in your fingers and comes out of your instrument or out of your voice. And sometimes that wants to develop into some big, spiraling epic thing, and sometimes it wants to be a concise little two minute statement. What you don’t want to do is get into your own head so much that you try to force it where it doesn’t naturally want to go.
VT: The album seems to have a theme to it, would you go so far as to call it a concept?
SU: Yes and no. There are two ways to look at this album’s construction. From the lyrical point of view, there’s a general nod to the seasonality of life. The cyclical nature of good times, bad times, of growing up, growing old… that sort of thing. And the ‘5th season’, the way I intended it lyrically, is the season where someone’s life lives on not in their own body, but in the influence they’ve had in other people. That’s been a theme that’s been playing out as I get older – as we all do. We either have our own brushes with mortality, or the older we get, mortality becomes a bigger player in the lives of our friends and the people that we care very much about. Then musically, it’s kind of an interesting experiment for our band, because the traditional way of Resistor doing something is for Fran or I to write some riffs, drink a lot of coffee, and duct tape those riffs together into things that form songs. Then we bring those to the band and listen to how they come to life when Barry and Rob take the songs to different tempos, to different ups and downs, over the hills and valleys. But on this one, we intentionally said ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s let everything develop out of band rehearsals’. So everything on this album was composed with at least three, if not all four of us in the same room just pounding things out on our instruments.
VT: You seem to have a wide variety of influences, do you all have eclectic musical tastes?
SU: I like to think so. I think all of us are pretty open with what we listen to, and there’s artistic value that can be found in a wide variety of places. I already listed off U2, right? They’re one of my favourite bands of all time, and they’ve never done an epic song. (Laughs) Fran is a big fan of bands like Opeth, but he’s also heavily into post-rock these days, so he loves these kind of patient, long, expanding themes. And you can kind of see how we’re starting to experiment in that direction. Rob is a huge Pink Floyd fan, and he’s got this authenticity of the old school of rock and roll where he comes from. He’s a little older than me and he’s got all these great stories about how he snuck out of the house in his early teenage years to go see Jimi Hendrix live, and Pink Floyd on their Dark Side Of The Moon tour. And you can just see how the perspective of somebody who actually lived through those formative years of the progressive rock scene makes them approach things differently than the rest of us do – he approaches it kind of like the guys who created this music did. Then you have Barry, whose drumming style is kind of Carl Palmer-like, in that you don’t really want to put the poor guy to a click track. I think he’s actually learning to do that now, but traditionally he would just bristle at that idea. But he listens to all this metal, he’s into Lamb Of God and all these other things too. So we don’t all name the same band as our favourite, though it’s no secret that both Fran and I have Rush as a huge influence, and you can hear that pretty easily in the band, I think.
VT: Let’s talk about some of these new tracks. I think the long opening piece Winter is one of the best you’ve ever done, full stop. It’s dynamic, energetic, full of twists and turns, it has everything a Resistor fan could want in one track.
SU: Wow! Thank you, that really is an awesome compliment and it means a lot that you think that’s one of our better songs, because when you’re in the middle of making something, it’s kind of hard to see it objectively. You don’t get the objective point of view until 10 years down the road and you’re disengaged from the project enough that you can really see it clearly. But we felt pretty special about this album. It’s a weird one, that’s for sure! It’s not clearly progressive rock or clearly anything else, and I’ve been wondering how people who review it are going to categorize it and see it. Underground is an easier album to talk about, it’s a big, epic story arc. But what exactly do you say about The 5th Season, how do you explain what it is to someone who is not listening to it currently? I don’t know!
VT: Saint Iris is another one I liked a lot right away. And it’s a great example of what a fluid rhythm section you have with Barry and Rob. Barry’s playing on this piece is so breezy, and combined with Rob, they lay down such an infectious groove.
SU: Oh yeah. It’s funny, Fran and I had the idea ‘Hey, let’s just have Barry and Rob create a bunch of bass and drum grooves, and then we’ll add our parts on to them later.’ – And that was a horrible failure! (Laughing) I mean those two guys were just awkwardly looking at us like ‘What do you want us to do?’ … ‘I don’t know, just play something!’ It turned into this (sings simple bass pattern), and we’re like ‘No, no no! Come up with something awesome!’ (Laughing louder) And they said ‘Um, we… we don’t like this. Go back to playing some stuff and we’ll come up with a good rhythm part to it again.’ And boy, do they react well. Fran and I don’t bother writing bass and drum parts when we come up with riffs anymore. We just write our guitar parts.
VT: Your violin and flute playing are vital ingredients in your sound, Resistor or otherwise. How did you come to pick up those instruments?
SU: When I was in kindergarten, a woman who later became my violin teacher came to the school to do a violin demonstration. My class was lined up and they passed a little half-size violin down the row, and… hold on, I’ll grab a prop here. (Picks up violin) Everybody else played some sound like this (Plays note). Then it gets to me, and… (Plays horrible-sounding screeching) everyone laughed at me. And I looked at the violin and I said ‘I’ll get you for this’. That night I told my mom that I wanted to take violin lessons, fully expecting her to be the supportive parent. Instead her response was ‘If you’re really interested, come back and ask me again next year’. Which I did! In kind of a cheeky way, I said ‘All right, a year’s gone by, are you going to help me with this or do I have to find my own way to get to violin lessons?’ So I was basically challenging the instrument, saying ‘How dare you make people laugh at me?’ And from that point forward, no matter what I pick up… everything appears to somehow be a violin through a lens. The way I play guitar sounds like somebody trying to play violin on guitar. The way I sing probably sounds like somebody who is singing notes that could or should have been violin melodies.
VT: And flute?
SU: Well, I picked up drums as a joke when I was 10. I jokingly said to my dad, ‘Hey, why don’t I buy this $15 set of drum sticks and practice book and become a long-haired rock and roll drummer?’ And his unwitting response was ‘Maybe that would be good for your sense of rhythm with violin’ (little did he know he’d be living with a giant drum set in the house a couple of years later.) And then I picked up guitar for serious when I was probably 14, I was horrible at it but eventually took some real lessons in college and started to get better at it. At this point I was playing with a couple of bands and thinking I’d made a horrible mistake, because everything I play requires me to lug around large amounts of heavy equipment. And wouldn’t it be this easy-breezy life if I learned to play flute? They don’t have to carry around anything! Since I’d learned a few instruments, I decided to make it a kind of scientific experiment and say ‘I wonder if it’s possible to learn an instrument by getting the brain to prioritize it by playing it 10 or 15 minutes every day’ – instead of these insane eight-hour practice sessions that I’d been doing on violin and guitar. So I did! I bought a used flute from a friend and lo and behold, it worked. I became a halfway decent flute player out of the deal.
VT: And as a result, people have compared you to Jethro Tull ever since.
SU: (Laughs) You know, I never really put in the time to learn all those Bach pieces and things that make your fingers work in counterintuitive, difficult ways on the flute. So I do a lot of faking my way through. If I can’t really play a riff, I’ll just go (makes vocal trilling noise) at the same time as I’m flailing my fingers and hope that no one notices! (Laughing) And that gives it a bit of that Jethro Tull feel. It’s also funny that my voice sounds a lot like Ian Anderson’s. I had never heard Jethro Tull until I was like 24 years old, out of college, didn’t know who these guys were. And I’d been told enough times ‘Dude, you sound like the guy who sings Aqualung!’ And I’m like ‘Who? What are you talking about?’ So I listened, and thought ‘Holy crap! I do sound like that guy!’ That wasn’t my intent, but there we are.
VT: Seraphim is a lovely melodic piece, kind of a straightforward, electric ballad. In contrast, Till Spirits Rise shuffles along with a mysterious undercurrent before becoming downright sinister and ending with a staccato climax.
SU: Yep, Seraphim is just a pretty ode to a meaningful person who has gone on to be a part of the cosmos now. We did want Till Spirits Rise to be a little bit spooky. The season of life where you’re tilling the fields and planting the seeds, you’re going to work the land until something grows out of this. And the spooky element is that the thing that’s going to grow out of this is much bigger and out of your control than you have envisioned.
VT: Aurora is the heaviest track for sure. Guitar scowl-face heavy.
SU: Aurora might actually be my favourite song on the album, but I suppose it depends on what mood I’m in. I think what I like the most about it is that it takes some of the weirdest stuff we play, and somehow wraps it up in a package that seems accessible to people. I’ve played that song to a few people who aren’t progressive rock-heads, who I thought would get downright turned off. If you’ve ever played Van Der Graaf Generator for somebody who is not into progressive rock and you’re familiar with the response they give you, I was expecting that kind of response from Aurora. And I didn’t get it! They were actually bobbing their heads around and enjoying it, they were like hypnotized and into it. So I thought ‘Wow, we must have achieved something with that one!’
VT: Falling Snow is a beautiful piece. With that title, I had expected something more gentle all the way through, but it gradually crescendos and becomes more substantial.
SU: As does some of our snow, right? You have this harmless little floaty beginning to the snowstorm and by the time it’s done it’s weighing down tree branches and covering everything, and has taken over in its blanketing way. Kind of like that song does. And that song was not something that was planned at all, the beauty of that is that it was an improvisation. What really made it was the arpeggiated chordal stuff that Fran kicked us off with. That’s the vine on which the rest of that song grew. And I think it nicely caps the album, an album done with the four of us in the same room together instead of composed and brought in. Because here’s the piece that’s entirely the creation of the moment of the four of us playing together.
VT: You’ve made a lot of solo albums, and you can play a lot of instruments. What do you get from Resistor that you can’t do on your own?
SU: What my brain and my physical body are doing are so different in these different musical things that I’m involved with, and that’s why I like being involved with them all… okay, to some degree everything we do is just being ourselves doing our thing. But the actual manifestation of what I’m doing when I create a Samurai Of Prog album versus a UPF album versus a solo album versus a Resistor album are all very different things. In Resistor, it’s me hanging out with my friend Fran writing material, or it’s me standing up with earplugs on, in a shaking room full of loud electric instruments, playing rock and roll in real time, hearing the whole sonic spectrum filled out all at once.
When I’m doing a solo album, it’s me sitting by myself in a room, probably with an acoustic guitar, analytically plucking away trying to find something interesting that could be the base of something. And then later, strumming away more wildly, now hearing the rest of the band in my head – but not in reality. So then the experience is painstakingly creating just the right click track with just the right time changes so I can record the acoustic guitar precisely and layer everything else on. And it’s me really getting into the head of what the drummer would do, and what the bass player would do. It’s a totally different construction methodology than standing in a room bashing on electric instruments with three other guys. And then when I do something like Samurai Of Prog, you can imagine it’s a very different experience again. Taking something like a composition by Oliviero Lacagnina, who is this phenomenal Italian composer, one of the main guys behind the band Latte E Miele. He writes these very advanced-educated 20th and 21st century classical harmony pieces. You can just see the music theory dripping off the page when he writes. He creates things that are amazing technical challenges for violin, and I feel a completely different part of my brain being tickled as I try and survive, and then own these parts that he gives me. With UPF I’m studio engineer guy, right? And it’s Mark Trueack and I on the phone for hours, chatting about the feel of the song and where we should take it and why, and trying to figure out in the studio how I’m going to achieve that sound. These are all just different aspects of my music, but they all find me doing completely different things.
VT: With this constant work, are you ever spent creatively? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
SU: Ha! I think I’m too busy to realize whether I experience writer’s block or not. I used to a lot, when I had fewer things on my plate, fewer outlets for my musical ideas. There was a phase around 2000 – 2008 where pretty much the only artistic outlet I had was my solo albums. I wrote one of my all time favourite musical projects I’ve done, a solo album called The Great Divide. And that’s an ambitious project for somebody to do all by themselves. I remember during that span of time, there was a lot of frustration because I wanted to create something great, and I was running up against my own limitations a lot. I just wasn’t able to generate the vision to create something that when I’d look back on it, felt like the classic I was aiming to achieve. I was able with The Great Divide – finally after hammering away and driving myself crazy for a long time – to create something that in retrospect feels like my own personal classic. But for the last decade or so, I’ve been so involved with all of these various projects… I’m just having fun. I’m just playing and trying not to overthink it anymore. I see it more as a blessing and a gift that instead of trying to prove myself or become John Coltrane or something, I’m just thankful for the opportunities that I have, that people still want to work with me and I get to do all these fun musical things.
VT: You’ve been on a roll the past few years. Your most recent solo album Precipice has one of my favourite tracks you’ve done in the song Reckoning. How do you look back on that album now that it’s been out for a couple of years?
SU: Happily. It’s like a breath of fresh air to have made Precipice and be really happy with it. I think I’ve made two solo albums that are effectively perfect for what they were trying to be. From the first opening second until the end of the last closing note, they’re authentic, proper versions of themselves without missteps in them. I see Precipice and The Great Divide as the two albums I’ve done that have achieved that. And they’re pretty different albums even though clearly the sound textures are very much the same, but those are the two where just take a deep breath and go ‘Ahhh, there are those two.’ I don’t have to cringe at any moments when I listen to these, I don’t have to get angry that something is bugging me, I just enjoy what I created.
VT: Is there an album you’ve made that you wish you could re-record with the wisdom that all these years of recording has given you?
SU: (Long pause) Well, I already pulled a bunch of revisionist history with the album Two Little Awakenings. That album went through so many different iterations, even after I’d released a tiny little run of CD-Rs. It was originally a meandering double album that later got condensed to a single album, that later got remixed and later got remastered again. Geddy Lee once said ‘Hearing the final master of an album is the death of hope’. (Laughs) ‘That’s the moment you realize the sound you had in your head is never going to happen, and it just is what it is now.’ And so clearly I was running up against that with Two Little Awakenings a lot. I ran up against the sound issues a lot with the Out Of The Ashes album as well, I was very displeased with the mix/master of that album for a long time. It’s probably because those were two of my earlier albums that I recorded and mixed myself, and recording and mixing is a very difficult skill with a long learning curve. If you don’t have the mics set up in the right place on the drum kit, there’s only so much you’re ever going to be able to do to perfect the sound of the album. And of course, my singing voice was still a work in progress back then. I was able to somewhat redeem myself with the title track Two Little Awakenings with the live show at the Monforti house.
VT: Oh, the show you did with Phideaux Xavier and Valerie Gracious? That’s a great live album!
SU: Yeah, that was a fun one. And I really took great pleasure in the way we were able to present that track live. It sort of felt like ‘See, now that’s the way it was supposed to go’.
VT: That’s a collaboration I think we should see more of.
SU: I think we sort of looked at each other at the conclusion of that magical weekend… and mind you, our brains were all fried, but we all just kind of smiled and said ‘This worked! It would be fairly easy to arrange a tour if you only had three performers, wouldn’t it?’ So who knows? There could be more of that some day.
VT: What’s next on the horizon? What are you working on?
SU: At this very moment, I’m wrapping up my last notes on the new Samurai Of Prog album – which is not the one you’re seeing advertised now (laughs) – it’s the next one. The Samurai have done three albums in about a six month period: Beyond The Wardrobe, The Lady And The Lion, and The White Snake, which is the second of the two Brothers Grimm-themed albums. And they’re definitely some of my favourite Samurai albums of all time. So that’s what I’m working on at the exact moment, and then as soon as I wrap that in about two weeks, I will shift my focus to Unitopia and UPF.
VT: So much music, it’s unbelievable, really.
SU: I’m just having fun!
VT: It shows. Keep it up, Steve, you just get better and better. Thanks for a great chat. And hey, stay safe out there!
SU: Thank you. It’s a different looking world when you’ve had your second vaccination. One doesn’t realize what a number it does on your mental state until you’re vaccinated, and then it’s like ‘Oh! This is what it feels like when you’re not thinking with each breath that this might be the one that kills me!’
VT: ‘Oh, so that’s what 2019 felt like… I had forgotten!’
SU: (Laughing) Exactly!
Ultimately, The 5th Season exhibits a newfound versatility in that it can act as an entry-level introduction to the band while also satisfying their longtime fans. How one views the course of their development depends on the individual listener; I tend to think of each album they’ve done as being just a little bit better than the last, and really, what more can you ask of musicians than steady progression and improvement? Resistor seem fully fledged now, and have delivered their most balanced batch of tunes to date. A more criminally underappreciated rock quartet I’m hard pressed to think of. If you’ve never given them a chance, now is the time.
Winter · Saint Iris · Seraphim · Cricket Season · Till Spirits Rise · Aurora · Falling Snow