Shellac – live review from Primavera

Shellac don’t play many gigs but when they do you can feel the whole world move.

The trio are an institution at ATP and it’s on that festival’s stage at Primavera that their set has become a legendary part of the event.

There can be few festivals in the world as well sited as this one and the futuristic concrete of Barcelona’s Parc Del Forum and the Mediterranean is a perfect backdrop to the angular noise in front of us. There has been some great music on with key Albini influence, Suicide, already displaying their genius the night before, the ante has been well and truly upped.

Fortunately Shellac are in full force in the tightly packed mini arena which serves to amplify the band’s savagely brilliant set.

Few festivals can boast a bill as good as this one and few can boast Shellac as headliners, even Steve Albini, the arch provocateur, seems genuinely touched by the response to the band dropping his usual amusing, sneering put downs for a heartfelt thank you.

Seasoned watchers are claiming this to be one of the great Shellac shows, perhaps the greatest and it’s hard to argue. They open with ‘My Black Ass’ and Albini’s guitar sounds skull scrapingly brilliant. It’s like his talons are literally scratching the inside of your head with his cheese grater sound. It sounds simply wonderful and is one of the best rhythm guitar sounds I’ve ever heard. Incessant, wiry and wonderfully nasty – like the public personae of the man himself, the guitar cuts through the night air sounding vicious and invigorating and sets the mood.

Todd Trainer’s fractured drum patterns kick in and you are left grinning like a maniac, knowing that the best drummer in the world is deconstructing the kit in front of your eyes. Trainer doesn’t merely play along with the band, he plays against it like a free jazz drummer and it’s no mistake that he is situated stage front like he is the frontman, another example of Shellac’s deconstructing of the rock cliche.

It takes time for Bob Weston’s bass to become that porridge of heavy truck noise but when it gets there you feel it. I’ve always been a big fan of the primal bass grunt from the days of prime time JJ Burnel in the Stranglers and Weston is the current world heavyweight bass champ. He has the gravitas and the filthy slab of noise thing nailed down tight with his Tronographic Rusty Box bass pedal sweating as it’s cranked to max.

Shellac sound brutal and heavy but there are so many subtleties here that they are a long way away from the basic stupidity of rock. They toy with rhythm and the patterns shift constantly- instruments switch roles endlessly with the bass and the drums taking turns as lead from the guitar. They don’t bore us with guitar solos and they never patronise with choruses. Their music sounds like it’s written in three cornered jams with each musician knowing when they have hit the perfect moment. They then replicate this live with each playing of the song adding to it’s intensity. Sure they play some old songs but they just sound meaner and more pointed with each airing and are hardly titillating hits to satisfy their fans.

There is bunch of new stuff in the set that sees them further stretch their sound into new directions, some are more brutal and some have more space, some have even stranger arrangements and there are moments of humour in goofy vocals. It all augers well for a potential new recording. God knows what they are called- there are thankfully no clues. One is a very tightly clipped, coiled guitar that builds the tension with the bass cutting across it and the drums playing a tense beat- it’s a gripping example of Shellac dynamics. Another is a more churning affair with a clipped bass driving it- pretty stark and lots of space- looking forward to hearing that space when it’s recorded live. Like the Fall, Shellac don’t really change their sound, just stretch their own fabric in the direction of their choice.

The band are getting more and more playful, with a bunch of goofing about that’s adds entertainment to their repertoire. On ‘Wingwalker’ they still do that running around like they are planes thing whilst Trainer, the closest they get to a Trad Rock star with his ruffled mop and even more ruffled antics stands stage front during End Of Radio, hitting his snare drum which is held aloft, throwing sticks into the crowd, it’s hardly the moronic cartoon cut out of Tea Party rock like Kiss but it works brilliantly in the context of the band who take to the strage with the sparsest lighting of the weekend and employ none of the usual smoke and mirrors of rock to present their sharp and angular workouts.

At the end of the set Albini and Weston carefully dismantle Trainer’s kit whilst he is still playing it, they always do this but it’s always so effective. The fact the don’t trash the kit but unscrew it carefully is great. Control, poise and intelligence- intellectual hooliganism is the game here. They construct and play their music with the same sharpened stealth.

The highpoint of the set is aforementioned, End OF Radio, now stretched into a ten minute plus epic. There are whole chunks of it that are the descending bass line distorted to maximum harshness that hypnotises as it plays an Ex style ruff with Albini intoning over the top. His dark vocals playing the part of a radio commentator doing the last ever broadcast on a dying planet. Dark and imaginative, this is Shellac at their very best and is one of the weirdest and most patient songs I’ve ever heard that creates moshpit mayhem during it’s noise sections.

The pit is lethal and there are bodies bouncing around crowdsurfing, flailing like rubber dolls as Shellac rewrite the rules of just what you can actually dance to.

It’s their taught, stretched patience and wiry genius that makes this band so effective. This is the kind of music that the whole Death To Trad Rock underground was striving towards in the eighties. We nearly got there but no one had the resolve and the patience of this trio to peruse it to it’s logical conclusion and anyone who is daring to play this kind of reconstructed shrapnel noise is going to have to push themselves hard to get anywhere near to what Shellac are doing.

Shellac will next appear at the just announce ATP ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ Festival – Details HERE
They are the scene leaders, anyone out there dare to have a go?


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