, September 17th, 2014 13:18
The word 'unique' should always be used with caution. Thoughtful gifts usually aren't in fact unique, like a personalised mouse-pad from Snappy Snaps. Tool use and culture most definitely aren't unique to humans. But the actor Geoffrey Hughes, who portrayed slovenly bumfluff Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances and in real life was also the Honorary Squire of Dartington's Morris Men, fits the bill. As does the star-nosed mole, as its mess of a face is covered in twenty four fleshy tentacles that detect food by touch. When it comes to music, there are four acts that really spring to mind: Tiny Tim, Chaka Khan, Arthur Russell and premium noise-rock rotbags Shellac.
Steve Albini, infamous record engineer, wearer of boilersuits, and poker bastard, is one of the last remaining real characters in 'alternative guitar music'. He has a reputation for being as cheery as a funeral invitation, but this is far from the truth and purely the result of never compromising his morals. First fronting Roland-batterers Big Black and a little later the ever-delightful Rapeman, and now in his current band of twenty-plus years Shellac, he's consistently held an outright apathy (read: hatred) towards any commodified underground or mainstream culture, preferring to do things his way – "The line ups that I've seen for Pitchfork Festival just make me fuckin' cringe. I'm not that familiar with popular music, but if I can think of thirteen bands that I hate right now, ten of them will be at Pitchfork."
Shellac are a band without deadlines or decisions placed upon them. They're a "selfish enterprise" functioning for their own enjoyment rather than anyone else's. Sharing this ideology are Albini's two friends, bassist Bob Weston and inhumane rim-shotter Todd Trainer. They tour when it fits within their own lives and fashion no soundcloud previews, videos, trailer videos, or tweets about their #new #haircut. And now, after a seven year wait, their fifth album Dude Incredible is gifted to the world, leaving an army of clammy-handed devotees covered in slobber like a bloodhound's jowl.
You know the Shellac drill by now: born of Albini's very own recording Arcadia, Electrical Audio studios; the extrapolation of simple practice-ideas that gradually become live staples; recorded without question to analogue tape; aluminium-bodied Travis Beans (this isn't some kind of metaphor); nothing really resembling a chorus; tangerine trousers; sombre yet mirthful; released, as always, on Touch And Go; and a carefully considered artwork package, which this time is a chipboard square and glossy macaque print (more about them later). Whatever you want to call their shtick - math-rock, post-hardcore, minimalist jugular-cutting, or just a white, angry man talking with style – it remains just that. Dude Incredible sounds "like a Shellac record" according to Bob Weston, and he's right. Not that that's a bad thing of course. When I eat my once-yearly Cadbury's Cream Egg I expect the sugar content to make me feel dizzy and I'd be irked if it didn't. And similarly, when I hear a new Shellac record I expect it to kick me in my imaginary balls. I expect it to deposit tape-worm larvae in my bowels, which become long, segmented adults invading my eyes with hundreds of cysts. I do not expect an organ solo or some chirpy soundscape. That would be ridiculous and shit.
When I press play for the first time, nervousness erupts from nowhere. It's a bit like meeting an old friend for a treacle tart after many absent years, anxious that your chummy spark has faded and you don't really have anything in common anymore. Thankfully, it turns out there's very little to worry about. The opening title track is a chunky, desert-ramble ruckus chronicling the highs and lows of a monkey troop going on an actual ruckus to find some lady macaques who might "let us fuck them”. The gnarly tone, stop-start snare and Solid Snake bass are all present as forecasted, but also some "ooh-oohs-oohs" for good measure which tip-toe them slightly out of their comfort-zone. There's a sudden reminder of how weirdly different they are to anything remotely 'now', but fretting about the lack of autotune is about as relevant as Lolly the popstar. Their outright mastery of repeating the same minimal, yet great riff and rhythm so tautly and cleverly that it never becomes tired, is evident from the get-go. 'Dude Incredible' is as satisfactory an opener as 'My Black Ass' or 'The End of Radio', and thus is already a classic.
The slower 'Compliant' is just as nasty and is Bob Weston's first vocal-lurch, running through OCD routines that build to an all-too-brief yell-a-thon. Shellac's economic prowess is often remarked on by their ability to produce the noise of ten musicians despite being a bare-bones trio. But, on top of this, in Weston they have a second singer (or should that really be speaker?) and a great one at that – a gentle counterpart to Albini's poison tongue.
'You Came In Me', a short song as pounding as the act itself, mixing one-part deadpan ejaculation rationale with five-parts fist-pump, begins the finest song-stretch on the record. Albini's guitar loosens its effects-muscle a little, briefly squawking like a sat-on hamster. A quieter Albini chug and clinking of milk bottles coming from Weston's headstock lure you into the next track, 'Riding Bikes.' Its sparseness is its strength, giving each player the ability to 'solo' throughout, with Weston's bass often taking over melody duty. Towards the end, Albini and Weston shriek down the microphone again and again, reminding me a lot of fictional radio hype-man Mr Scream from Wayne's World Two. Their expertise in cold-blooded restraint and release tricks you into thinking the song has finished at least five times before the snare-screams return, and every time it's a relief. The amusing mini-introduction to 'All The Surveyors' is an official Shellac First. In what is jokingly referred to as "The Queen Part", they morph into a barbershop triad singing "Who fears the king? Fuck the king!" which should really find its second home in an anti-royalist West End musical starring Floella Benjamin and Tyrone from Coronation Street. The track itself is another full-on gnaw-fest, exquisitely layering tightrope ensemble-playing atop Albini's bile-chat and crow "caw caws." Not for one second is an instrument lost, despite Trainer's huge crash-bashes. At their best, Shellac kill anything in sight and eat it for dinner.
Lyrically, Albini has mellowed somewhat over the years and, on this record, rather than tackling fubar topics like satanic ritual child abuse or politicians that publicly shoot themselves in the mouth, there is an unintentional loose-running theme of – wait for it – surveying. It first appears on the aforementioned 'All The Surveyors' and is thread through the two final songs, instrumental 'Mayor/Surveyor' and 'Surveyor.' Apparently, the States' founding fathers measured the dimensions of the land with a pole and chain - quite the feat considering how bloody massive it is - which has inspired Shellac no end. The final track even includes Weston quoting George Washington, devastated that the lack of maps is halting progress. Add to this the most contorted, beastly guitar so far and you have a very strong terminus for Dude Incredible. Past presidents exploring new land, in combination with monkeys on the prowl and the joy of going ape-shit on a bike, does point to an optimistic sense of adventure. This is quite the contrast from previous prayers of murder and "the doo doo and the faeces on the wall." But don't let that put you off, Shellac are still capable of making the most potentially inane topic sound hilarious and brutal, (as on 'All The Surveyors' – "you times son of a bitch squared") much like Onslow himself.
Earlier this year Albini confessed that "the single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free." Perhaps this healthy state of affairs buoyed him and the band to finally release Dude Incredible. Not that you'll find it on Spotify, mind. If it takes another seven years for new material to appear then so be it. They are a reliably unique entity, so free of bullshitty gimmicks and fakery, they could be repackaged and sold as a self-help hardback in The Works bookstore. Fans of the band will find a lot to applaud on Dude Incredible and it's one of their more efficient, immediate LPs - the longest track lasts only six minutes. But perhaps not everyone will be able appreciate it. It isn't in-yer-face, doesn't generate controversy or break new musical boundaries. But Shellac, refusing to be anyone but themselves, should be admired for doing so and are hugely preferable to cruddy attempts to re-ignite weak-as-piss garage rawk and parade it around as something new.
Not that the band could care less. Sure, they're flattered when people take an interest in their hobby, but success for them is simply making a record and enjoying the process, so they've already won. Game over.