Thursday, 18 February 2016

Shellac at Action Park (1994)

I've just noticed that Shellac have now been going longer than those acts I once regarded as peddlers of dinosaur rock back when that suddenly seemed like a thing, and this is weird because I've had this album for most of those twenty plus years and it feels as though I'm only just beginning to understand it. This was either a birthday or Christmas present from my friend Andrew, the one who pegged it, and is thus yet another example of him having introduced me to something I now consider essential listening. Oddly, I found Action Park a little impenetrable at the time - more or less a series of angular riffs and scratching noises scored to a pounding drum rhythm; yet the more I played it, the more its power came to the fore.

People have the wrong idea about Steve Albini, assuming him to be some sort of bloody minded lo-fi figurehead, a man who won't rest until everything has been reduced to a wax cylinder recorded with a microphone made out of old fag papers and knicker elastic. Rather it's the case that he's trying to get to the beauty of the instruments as they sound without all the reverb and chorus and horseshit, none of which are strictly necessary unless you have something to hide - a complete dearth of ideas for example. This isn't to say that the very idea of the studio as instrument is always the province of shitehawks, only that other flavours are available, or at least that they should be.

Albini's musical asceticism extends to the album as object, in this case an object which looks as though it's been purchased from a wooden display box on the counter of a hardware store, and specifically the kind of family owned hardware store tended by a man with strong opinions on possums and raccoons. The music also has a bit of a hardware store feel to it, certainly something involving hammers and sore thumbs. Yet none of this is really quite novelty - some cutesy exercise in nostalgia or punk rock as a Hal Roach production - so much as a reaffirmation of the sheer power of music as visceral and human. Those scratchy riffs and weird, harsh chords executed with the sort of precision timing by which one might operate a lathe or a band saw all slot together to form an almost sculptural whole of complex patterns founded in something surprisingly simple. The drums pound, the bass growls, Albini gives himself a sore throat, and there isn't even standard issue heavy metal distortion on this album, yet it makes Physical Graffiti sound like the Sundays. Steve Albini has made some great records, but this one makes everything which preceded it sound tame.

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