Steve Albini, Todd Trainer, and Bob Weston, as the apparition Shellac of North America, emerge after seven years with the aural Sistine Chapel, the magnetic-tape committed Great Wall of China, the Stuff and Matter of Fact.
Much is made about the intervals between Shellac albums, the particularity and the lack of alacrity with which the band chooses the riffs and tones that will make it onto the final product. Between 1994’s debut At Action Park and the subsequent Terraform there fell about 4 years. Band lore has it that Albini refused to release Terraform until he could secure the rights to use the Chesley Bonestell artwork that eventually graced the cover. This was followed by the release of 1000 Hurts two years later, a relatively short interval by today’s standards. Then, as though the initial exercises in witholding were merely warmups, just yogic Kegel clenching exercises, the band gave us nothing more till this year’s June release of Excellent Italian Greyhound.
Much is made about the irregularity of Shellac’s releases, but more should be made about the particularity of releases. The band doesn’t release on a schedule, they release when the album is done right. Finding or pushing out the newest party jam or the loudest guitar rock record is good, it’s fun, but moving on the masses with genre-confined projects such as those is a different game than proffering that which defines genres and truly blows minds. Listening to Shellac is the closest thing to the aural equivalent of reading Hunter S. I can think of. Both the band Shellac and the Writer Hunter S. Thompson operate with a rigid moral license that precludes anything they determine as being falsely derivative from carrying their brand. They strip everything but truth from their watermark, and with all that detritus is disposed adherence to the social conventions of time or the judgments of others. Yeah, there is something alienated about it, but art is alienating. When you wield art, you are on your own.
Albini owns and operates Chicago’s Electrical Audio recording studios, where bassist Bob Weston used to engineer before starting his own Chicago Mastering Service. Drummer Todd Trainer simply seems intent on haunting the listener with his weirdly unhurried and LOUD rhythms. These are three men who make no compromises and capably produce material to their own exacting and technically extremely specific standards. Further, they are unhurried tone freaks.
This is, therefore, no easy listening. It is rewarding listening. Each sustained ring of the guitar through custom pedals and amplifier circuitry is intended and unique and it has taken time to bring into being. It is not an approach to culture compatible with the way our Western myth of progress has developed and weighs on us now, day in and day out, since the Church first sought to propagate the faith and move the Word west across the water, the Word all the time gaining momentum, taking the form of circuits and waves, encompassing the expanses in a grid of towers and wires to see and define and control all there is. This is not music that is the progress of the Word, it is not the embodiment of timetables, mortgage amortization schedules, actuarial tendencies… It is the Word itself, not the expression of a mutation of its technique.
Therefore, the opening track The End of Radio is apt to open this new record as more than as a panicked sendoff to the now nostalgic era of commercial radio in this instantaneous, continuously niche-honeycombed internet age. Broadcast radio was set up to move the Word to a world of public homogeneous identity. The public and the era found and defined itself by what it heard while the distribution system of commercial broadcasts simultaneously learned to see and define its listeners. In our new, niche-motivated world, the Word as it has come to be now hides the other fledgling Words from each other. The End of Radio is a track that both alludes to this change in media and to its own status as a song by a band that speaks a different Word, always outside the purview of the first Word’s genealogy, hierarchy, and scheduling. It is a song by a band with individual character, not mass identity. It’s a song by a band of “analog loyalists” in the digital age.
Track by track, the record evolves at its own pace, and sometimes doesn’t evolve at all. Genuine Lulabelle is a masterpiece clocking in over nine minutes, and deserves consideration. It’s a grim and accusatory recounting of one sailor’s tale of a gang-banged whore at foreign port of call. It’s a spotlight on the human’s ugly instinctive tendencies, on our lust for that elusive something “real”, and our ability to have these things manipulated to make us uglier than we need to be. It’s also a human and admiring eulogy for the friend, the Man, who told the narrator of the song his stories.
“Is it really broadcasting if there’s no one there to receive?”
Albini rasps at the end of the first track.
No. No, it’s not. What we need are receivers. Ears that listen. Ears of individuals, not of small cadres of group identity. As radio ends, bands like Shellac show us that we can keep the broadcast alive. We can keep the questions coming. We can speak new Words.