UNITS ‘Digital Stimulation’ (415, 1980)

Generally speaking, listening to a self-aggrandising peer saying, “You like [influential band]? Well, you should really listen to [obscure band]” tends more towards an act of generosity and patience than an educational experience. With the genre that would come to be known as synthpunk, it’s tempting to lord the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of San Francisco early adopters Units over conversations about the music of The Screamers or Suicide. In reality, it’s much more fun to forget the pseudo-intellectual music history lesson and instead turn up ‘High Pressure Days’, the opening cut from Units’ 1980 long-player, ‘Digital Stimulation’.

With bouncing synth hooks alongside urgent vocal chants about the galloping pace of modern life, ‘High Pressure Days’ first saw light as a seven-inch single in 1979, but it sounds like it could have been released several years later. Can we still call a song infectious? If so, it’s that. “I saw Johnny tonight!” yelp Scott Ryser and Rachel Webber in unison. “But we didn’t say hello to each other / We’re all moving pretty fast these days / Bumping around like bumper cars.” It’s a commanding, frenzied introduction to an album whose 11 tracks present synths as highly thrashable entities, distorting them to oblivion while yelling across the studio space over motorik drums.

My introduction to ‘Digital Stimulation’ came while sitting around a fire with friends Sarah Nicolls (one of the UK’s eminent experimental pianists and former Warp signee) and her husband. There are some people whose background music choices demand you keep an ear out, and an inquisitive “Who’s this, then?” has often escaped my lips in their company. “It reminds me of Talking Heads… but it’s more punk!”

A little prosaic, but ostensibly accurate. They may have encroached into an underground punk scene 3,000 miles away from New York City, but the guitar-less Units were similarly endowed with the influence of performance art and experimental cinema. Proselytes were made. “I have always had this underlying feeling that synthesisers and other sterile-looking gadgets were generally intruders on the rock ’n’ roll field and that nothing genuinely ‘alive’ could be extracted from their circuits, no matter how flash and brilliant some of their rock ‘n’ roll impersonations could be,” wrote one journalist in a zine called Slash in 1979. “That night, watching Units pound their machines into submission, I knew that another cliched concept of mine was biting the dust once and for all.”

A West Coast, new wave, pure-punk powerhouse – and with Futurismo recently reissuing the album, perhaps Units might finally get their due.

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