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Polyester genius: reflecting on the boundary-pushing perfection of Regurgitator’s 1997 classic, Unit

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My first rebellious experience was listening to Regurgitator‘s Unit. My brother got a copy for his 10th birthday and I immediately was drawn to its silver cover – me being a six year old who was irrevocably drawn to anything shiny. It’s perhaps the most nostalgic record I could ever listen to, partly because it’s the soundtrack to some of the earliest memories I have, and partly because I wasn’t allowed to listen to it; and for some reason that’s special to me.

It’s also, undeniably, a brilliant album – one of the Australian greats of the 90s. And not because of the smut – although that’s why I was initially so drawn to it. Unit was, and still is, a daring piece of sonic innovation and social commentary, one that took the disparate fringes of punk rock and electronica and tied them together in a way that seemed to recall – regurgitate – so many consecrated musical mainstays in a way that is still incredibly refreshing to listen to 19 years on.

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Before they kick off their Human Distribution tour, we reflect upon the ironic beauty, sonic pandemonium and boundary-pushing genius of Regurgitator’s 1997 classic, Unit.

Regurgitator have always pushed the boundaries of what rock music can do. Tu-Plang (1996), the band’s debut full-length and Unit‘s predecessor, fused elements of rap and punk rock in a far more tasteful and ingenious way than anything in the following decade ever would. This experimentalism expanded further into realms of dub and techno too – the kind of macabre frankensteining of musical genres that was realised with mad ingenuity on Unit.

The album was recorded in a condemned warehouse in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley in 1997 alongside renowned producer and engineer, Magoo. Following the schizophrenic nature of the band’s debut LP and preceding EPs, Unit is in many ways a pop record, albeit one that stretched the meaning of ‘pop’ to its very limits.

The opening track is a tongue-in-check reference to this shift, ironically titled I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff. With it’s alien keyboards, manipulated vocals and handclap chorus, fans of the band’s earlier work might have immediately shared the song’s sentiments – but certainly not the masses.

Unit‘s first single the emphatically punk rock, Everyday Formula – made a fairly minimal impact when it was released, barely breaking the charts in Australia and not even surfacing overseas. It wasn’t until Black Bugs and the unforgettable Polyester Girl were released in the following months that heads began raising, and the genius of the record began to become fully realised.

Black Bugs is the perfect archetype of how to create rock music with a metallic heart – a motif that claws its way throughout the entirety of Unit. In a nod to 80s pop, the guitars are wrapped in a sheet of shimmering modulation, and the drums reverberate with digital desolation. There’s a curling keyboard solo too and a persistent sampled drum track that ties the whole song together.

These elements are taken even further on Polyester Girl – which is today seen as Reguritator’s magnum opus. A song steeped in the same irony as the album’s opener, it tells the tale of a man pledging his eternal love to his sex doll, with her ‘plastic hair and plastic eyes’, who only ‘stares at the wall’ and says ‘nothing at all’ – the ‘perfect guy’s accessory’.

The song’s sardonic tongue is perhaps muted by its pop aesthetic – but that only served to widen the scope of Regurgiator’s admirers when it was released. The song peaked at number 14 in the charts in Australia and was played widely on radio across the country.

Tracks like I Will Lick Your Arsehole and Modern Life carry on this kind of social commentary, each with their own very different aural complexions driving them home. I Piss Alone is a powerful sonic pastiche, blending melodramatic orchestrations with wailing punk attitude and surprisingly insecurity in its lyricism (‘I piss alone, ugh hoh’ / ‘I don’t want nobody to know’ / ‘That I don’t have the pressure of some of the other boys’ / ‘They make a noise, it scares me so’).

Unit was also an album that was way ahead of its time, with songs like ! (The Song Formerly Known As) – a clear reference to Prince‘s rebellion against his label Warner Bros a few years earlier – Polyester Girl and I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff heavily referencing 80s electronica, a trend that would reemerge in the late 2000s and continues to flicker today.  

The World of Sleaze is yet another ironic social dialogue, listing in its chorus the various slang terms for the private body parts of men and women, reducing these glorified sexual commodities to mere words of smut. Even the album’s title is an ironic comment on the commodification of music and the transition of art into a saleable product – a unit.

It’s these characteristics that make the album so much more than just a triple platinum record – or Regurgitator’s most popular work. They speak something with far more depth, and far more longevity. Unit will long be remembered as one of the greatest Australian rock album ever released. Not because it sold a lot of copies, but because it pushed boundaries. Regurgitator have never been afraid to experiment, but to do so with so much scope and such clear vision is truly genius.

Six year old me may have been drawn to Unit‘s smutty nature and shiny silver cover, but almost twenty years on there are still things to be discovered and enjoyed within, and thankfully now I can listen to it as much as I want.

Regurgitator are heading their Australia-wide Human Distribution tour this October.

You can catch them at the following dates and be sure to get your tickets here before they sell out.

OCT 13 – Byron Bay – THE NORTHERN
OCT 14 – Brisbane – THE ZOO
OCT 15 – Brisbane – THE ZOO
OCT 21 – Sydney – THE METRO
OCT 22 – Canberra – UC REFECTORY
NOV 3 – Melbourne – HOWLER
NOV 4 – Melbourne – POW
NOV 5 – Adelaide – THE GOV
NOV 26 – Perth – LIVE AT THE ORCHARD

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October 6, 2016