It’s tempting to write off Unwed Sailor just from all the weird, overblown fantasy themes of their artwork and song titles. Not to mention some of the text on their website, which characterizes them as “a two-hearted octopus with every arm working twice as hard.” For an instrumental band, they have a lot to say — it almost betrays Johnathon Ford’s roots as a mid-90s emo-core vet, where long, clever song titles were pretty much the norm. But the words got really out there on 2003’s Marionette and the Music Box, which was supposed to chronicle the story of, well, a marionette searching for a music box, though there was also, not improbably, a unicorn involved. And while the record alone didn’t quite illuminate this story arc, it did work on a completely different level: as a well-composed post-rock album comprised of a series of carefully brief vignettes.
Little Wars, their new record, shares its name with an early-century H.G. Wells book laying out the rules for staging battles with toy soldiers, and the title is oddly apt — not that there’s anything too brazenly militaristic, but there’s an abounding grandiosity to the whole thing that’s played out on a relatively small scale. It’s thanks mostly to the drums, carrying over the big, hollow sound Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan established on their first EP. Drums have always been paramount to Unwed Sailor’s ability to distinguish themselves from the tons of other instrumental post-rock bands floating around — for one thing, they tend to recruit great drummers, and, for another, it’s the main instrument that keeps lots of their more ambient songs, especially those eking into the six- and seven-minute range, from sounding like background music to Myst.
Most of it is far more accessible than any of their other post-Marionette records, and that’s due in large part to the omission of all the lofty, almost prog-inspired fantasy concepts. The best moments on Little Wars are songs like ‘Aurora’ and ‘Echo Roads’, which are essentially structured like pop songs that could, conceivably, have sung melodies and lyrics. But thank god they don’t, because who knows how ridiculous those words would be.