Shellac – Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
DL / LP / ompD
Released 16th September
10 / 10
Lets not fuck about, this is a 10/10 album – a relentlessly brilliant work of no compromise and musician perfection that doesn’t fit in anywhere and spits on your boring rock narrative. Of course it’s beyond discussion now, for us anyway; Shellac are the finest rock band on the planet. This is the rock band that the rest of us in our bands, like my Membranes, have had to measure ourselves against and if we are found wanting then we have to cower behind rocks and attempt to revive our measly offerings until they measure up. On the other hand, if we can stare into the dark abyss of the trio’s genius dynamic rock wrestle, then we are fine.
On one listen it sounds great – a perfect distillation of all the stuff we love about Shellac – by the forth listen you know it’s their best work yet.
Dude Incredible doesn’t sound different from Shellac’s previous albums – it doesn’t have to, the band have achieved a perfection and are at the tweaking stage now- all the great hallmarks are still here- Bob Weston’s grinding bass runs, Steve Albini’s shrapnel guitar and Todd Trainor’s dislocated drum genius, all put back together in a slightly different order. Of course it sounds thrilling and it’s stunning that somewhere in their dynamic, and the strict confines of a trio, they can still find ways to surprise and thrill you.
They have dotted the last couple of decades with six albums whenever they can be be arsed / got time / are ready on their own terms. These are releases that started in the burning remains of Albini’s Big Black- the finest noise to grind out of the eighties – the malevolent dark beast with its thundering cold precision drum machine dynamic – they could have been huge but decided to settle for being genius instead.
Rapeman was the first attempt at this new kind of so called post rock and went down in a hail of bullets before Shellac brought out Action Park – a monstrous album, an album that sounded like a band at the top of its game, turning rock music inside out and with a sound that had been designed to showcase Albini’s collection of ribbon mics and stunning recording techniques where everything sounded more live than was humanely possible.
To this day I send this album out to aspiring drummers and recording engineers and tell them that’s what the fucking drums should sound like and they gasp. Albini and his cohorts had turned recording into a fine art and this album was perfection- it was all that shrapnel, death to trad rock stuff that we have been messing with in the eighties cranked to a stunning perfection.
The problem was where do you go from there? There was not a lot of space to move with this sound – it’s not like a normal band who arrive with shock and awe and then back off to mainstream predictability and make ‘radio music’ (spits). Shellac were operating beyond these norms and the next releases saw a band move into a more obtuse direction, stripping away from the juggernaut of the debut to a more subtle repetitive and equally effective style with their weird timings, stops and starts, grinding bass and mind boggling drums stretched all over the place with stunning results like on the haunting The End Of Radio and on the heart breaking Prayer To God with its gut wrenching emotional skree.
The drums remain mouth watering – they are so live that you can imagine the whole room they were recorded in and feel them pounding away in your head. The guitar has oddly got less abrasive and more squirally and complex and the songs got geekier yet equally effective.
Dude Incredible sounds a bit more rock than before, a slight hint of the gonzoid rock of the players pre punk years maybe? it’s only a hint though as we peer between the cracks in the sound and grasp at a kind misanthropic ZZ Top – a blues rock but stripped down and twisted into an almost rock music.
Albini has been called many things by many people and he is the finest recording engineer in rock history, but he never gets credit for being a great guitar player even though his fret skills are pretty damn fine and this album really showcases his intricate and unexpected patterns and those spindly riffs dominate this record. A record that has been 7 years in the making, with many of these songs being tried out live at various ATP fetsivals and odd locations around the world.
The title track kicks off the album with a twisting and turning hypnotic guitar drone that bizarrely reminds me of Tinarewen and their desert rock blues, are Shellac dealing out the desert drone with a churning, spiralling guitar line that is unlike anything they have done before? Albini croons a song about group dynamics and the pack mentilty and how to get a decision made in those great micro observations that he likes to make about human behaviour before the song hits a neo-hardcore dense outro.
They follow this with Compliant, a song about OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and how to get through the day with that condition- something that their music could be accused of soundtracking. Complaint harks back to the shrapnel assault of earlier Shellac – those groove drums of Todd Trainor and the clipped riffs from the Albini guitar – it’s the kind of monster groove that prime time Zeppelin specialised in- that dark funk ground through the power of rock before the songs breaks down into a stripped down subdued vocals section with the great Bob Weston taking the mic. The groove here is so damn hypnotic you want to stay locked in for ever.
You Came in Me is a goofy humour song about sex- the album is laced with an obtuse and a dark humour, like some kinda 21st century Zappa gone weird- it’s funny and it’s the cackle of intellectuals – smart fucked up motherfuckers laughing at the innate stupidity of the world. Albini has detailed on the net somewhere what these songs are about but to be honest it matters little- it’s the pure sound of this band that makes the impact- you can feel the meaning and the words are there to be excavated later – it may not be as abrasive and designed to headfuck as the Big Black’s catalogue but the thought process is still the same. There may even be some sort of, ahem, subtlety going on these days as Albini deals with the personnel. And the song? It’s got a drum workout that makes you gasp- what Shellac remember from the great post punk days is that every instrument plays lead at the same time- there on no passengers- no such things as ‘rhythm section’, everyone is the rhythm section in a group dynamic like this- the drums can pop out for the lead and you can sing their parts out loud.
Riding Bikes is built around a clipped guitar with the bass coming out for some kinda lead over the top and is a song about, er, Riding Bikes or having adventures when you are young and running a round trashing stuff – a celebration of a certain kind of freedom. There is so much space in the sound and that is the key – the gaps between the instruments- it takes an awful lot of skill to present music as loud as this with so much space and silence and it’s this skill that marks Albini out as the great engineer that he is and the band as the great players that they are – no-one is playing over anyone else. Its long intro section is so great you could stay there forever- a clipped guitar, those brilliant sounding drums and the bass running a lead lick over the top- it’s like the Stranglers between their astonishing Black and White and the rule smashing and underrated Meninblack. the song outros on one of those amazing time signature stop/start things they do so well.
All the Surveyors kicks in with a loopy barbershop quartet acapella of the band singing before hitting another drop dead groove and a neo Beefheart lick on the guitar. A song about the founding fathers of the USA being surveyors and the concept of measuring the country literally in yards and the nature of existence and spreading this metaphor to discuss the nature of surveying the terrain – Shellac may play music that never does the obvious and lyrically they take this even further with great little observations that jolt your mind into thought processes.
Ironically The Peoples Microphone is an instrumental about vocals and a song about the Wall Street protest when a speech made on the platform would be amplified the audience chanting the content because there was no PA- the song itself is full of those outrageous stop starts again and stunning time changes that are such a feature of Shellac. The guitar riff is like a guttural cough and spits its filthy phlegm over the track before the almost inevitable breakdown to the vocals section.
Gary is about the city in Indiana, and about the people’s charter of the steel town with lyrics from left wing folk songs- there is a real darkness about this one and that kind of wretched filthy noise of the prime time Birthday Party about its skeletal filth- although is doesn’t sound like the Birthday Party – it’s more of the feel- Shellac are not a sum of any influences- this is a band that very much dances to its own tune. They are one of those bands that sound like themselves. Hard to pin down.
Mayor Surveyor is another instrumental which this time dances in on its own fantastic rhythm with the bass lashing across some amazing drum patterns from Todd with a bass drum that takes your heart and bounces it around the room, the guitar is spindly and the song is perfection.
Closing track, Surveyor (there’s lots of surveyors on this album) is the closing section of the previous song and laces the bleak and powerful landscape with a near prog melody. Again it picks up on the notion of the founding fathers of the USA being surveyors and reflects on their thinking process and shines it back on shallow modern times when politics, like showbiz, is trapped in time of celebrity and star culture with little of the basic skills and tools of the trade ever being required. Could this be a metaphor for shellac themsleves? Musical surveyors armed with skills- each member is like a craftsman.
Shellac have done it again- they have managed to make their tight small world hypnotic and enthralling. The only other group to ever master this bleak and sparse terrain was the Stranglers on Black and White- an arcane world dripping with tension and menace and a stupendous grunting lead bass- so few people dare to travel into this space – maybe only the masters dare to tread here and in 2014 like we said at the beginning Shellac are the masters- the greatest rock band on the planet- don’t let anyone tell you anything otherwise- all those goons plying their rock trade are mere pretenders when the kings are back.
Where it fits into the band’s ‘glorious cannon’ is unimportant, Shellac are operating a long way outside the parameters of boring stuff like rock and its tedious narrative – there is no story to be told- they make up their own rules and their own narrative. They tand apart from the conveyer belt. It matters little which album is which and whatever order this stuff is coming out as. Some of there songs have been getting played live for six years, Shellac exist on their own timescale – they destroy the notion of such lame phrases as post punk and post rock.
They are one of the few bands left who just won’t play the game in whatever way.
This album is a 10/10.