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The Units (U.S.): Digital Stimulation

Track List

>High Pressure Days
>Digital Stimulation
>Warm Moving Bodies
>Go
>Mission
>Cannibals
>Bugboy
>Tight Fit
>Passion or Patterns
>Town by the River
>Cowboy
>I - Night

Album Notes

Digital Stimulation was the 1980 debut full-length by the Units, a San Francisco-based performance art rock group who were retroactively co-credited with inventing the genre known as synth-punk along with bands such as the Screamers and Suicide. The album was one of the first releases on San Francisco-based 415 Records, a label which also released music by bands like Romeo Void and Translator, and the album arrived after the Units had spent a few years gigging around the California punk and new wave club scene, opening for bands ranging from the Dead Kennedys to the Go-Go's. The Units featured a revolving cast of members over the years, but this album was recorded by core members Rachel Webber and Scott Ryser, both of whom sang and played synthesizers, along with powerhouse drummer Brad Saunders. The band's members have acknowledged that the Units wouldn't exist without Devo, and it's easy to see some similarities, particularly the stiff, adenoidal vocals and lyrics touching on socio-political paranoia. From a musical standpoint, though, the Units seemed far more interested in exploring the sonic capabilities of their synthesizers, filling out their expansive sound with a wide array of electronic techniques and tricks played with prog rock virtuosity. Unlike most synth-pop bands, there doesn't seem to be a hint of sequencing or programming on this recording; everything is intensely played live, and the drumming is crashing and dynamic, similar to the fantastic drumming of the Buzzcocks John Maher, but with more of a free-form experimental approach. There's nothing "robotic" about this music at all; it's far too alive, too human. Not for nothing does the band state "we are the ones, ones who got the bodies" on the sex-scientific "Warm Moving Bodies," which seems to reference the Normal's synth-punk landmark "Warm Leatherette." The band reveals a cheeky sense of humor on the wacky "Mission" (also known as "The Mission Is Bitchin'"), while half-time prog-waltz "Bugboy" is more sadistic, with lyrics about a child who takes pleasure in torturing insects. Instrumental "Tight Fit" features vibraphone along with the intensely pounded-out drums and keyboards, resulting in a unique new wave/jazz hybrid that works surprisingly well. "Cowboy" is another ambitious instrumental which starts out calm and glacial, erupting halfway through into a vibrant digital chase scene. Subsequent releases would find the Units moving into a more conventional, danceclub-friendly direction, eventually leading to a short-lived tenure on Epic which would only amount to a medium-rotation video on MTV and two unreleased albums produced by Bill Nelson. The group's later, more commercialized material is still worthy of interest to fans of '80s electronic music and new wave, but Digital Stimulation remains a fiery, exciting document of an innovative group who redefined the potential of synthesizers in a rock band format. ~ Paul Simpson



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