Shellac are one of the greatest bands in the world. Their occasional gigs are awe inspiring. Luckily Alan Holmes was there to report back on one of them for Louder Than War.
Strange Days ”â Hammersmith Apollo 31/12/10
Having breathed life back into the UK’s tired old festival scene, those cool ATP people now turn their attention to rehabilitating the New Year party. After all, do you really want to round off your year in the company of Jools Holland or would you rather be jumping around to incendiary sets from Sonic Youth, Shellac, The Pop Group and Factory Floor?
There’s not a lot to add about Sonic Youth and The Pop Group to John Robb’s review of the previous night’s show in Manchester. Suffice to say that the change of year feels a lot more exciting when counted down by Thurston Moore than by Jools Holland!
Token young group Factory Floor kick off the proceedings in spectacular fashion, the atonal disco noise of their excellent recent ”ËWooden Box’ EP gaining vastly from the Apollo’s decent p.a. system. Their simple premise of setting sequenced dance grooves against waves of dissonant noise is so exhilarating and obvious that it’s amazing no one has really thought of it before. The result is a bit like Throbbing Gristle at their most ”Ëpop’ and gets the party moving right from the start.
The Pop Group follow, having lost none of their fire during their 30 year hiatus, although compared to their astonishing comeback gig at the Garage a few months back, suffer slightly from a mix that favours the razor slash guitar skreek a little too much above the chest-caving dub rhythm section… but that’s really just nit picking ”â it’s fantastic to see this seminal group back in action.
Still totally uncompromising towards both their music and the trappings of the business after 18 years, Shellac don’t do things like most groups. Even in tonight’s distinguished company, the group stand out like a sore thumb. It’s evident on first entering the foyer, where the well-stocked merch stall is conspicuously devoid of any Shellac items and again when the Pop Group vacate the stage and Albini, Weston and Trainer carry on their own gear to meticulously set everything up themselves. Shellac are no indulgent rock stars allowing a team of minions to do the hard work while they sit back and enjoy backstage hospitality ”â they’re here to do a job and they’re going to do it properly.
The no-nonsense approach permeates the music, songs are stripped bare of all extraneous adornments and performed with mathematical rigour and brutal persistence. As you’d expect from a band containing two distinguished studio engineers, the sound is impeccable ”â loud, crunchy and crystal clear. From the opening notes, the dance floor is churning with flailing bodies; of all tonight’s groups, Shellac command the most dedicated followers ”â it’s a long time since I’ve seen this level of mosh pit action and the air literally crackles with excitement.
Such tight precision and odd time signatures would result in a coldly cerebral music in the hands of most musicians, but Shellac’s intuitive mastery of tension and dynamics create a thrillingly belligerent sonic fist that smashes you in the jaw before grabbing you by the throat to shake you around mercilessly. None of the songs outstay their welcome, several clocking in at under two minutes, although one of the set’s highlights was an extended ”ËEnd of Radio’ with Todd Trainer wandering around both on and off stage while hammering his hand-held snare drum and hurling drum sticks into the audience. Steve Albini extends the song’s tale of the last radio broadcast into even more surreal areas as all the while Bob Weston hammers out the song’s ultra-minimal bass riff without missing a beat. Shellac have a rare ability to joke and fool around without ever dissipating the underlying tension that’s so crucial to their sound.
Much of the set is drawn from 2007’s ”ËExcellent Italian Greyhound’ mixed in with a handful of new tunes and oldies, including a particularly electrifying version of ”ËSquirrel Song’. Despite not being the most prolific of groups, Shellac have amassed an impressive body of work over the years and tonight’s set never flags, despite the absence of such crowd-pleasing classics as ”ËPrayer to God’.
Halfway through the final song, Albini and Weston discard their instruments and start carrying the gear off stage, leaving Trainer to perform a drum solo on an ever diminishing drum kit until Albini finally picks up the drummer and carries him off too, leaving the stage uncluttered and ready for Sonic Youth’s arrival. If only all support groups were so considerate and efficient!
Albini’s unflinching idealism and lack of bullshit shows that punk values don’t have to be jettisoned at the first sign of popularity and that ”Ëselling out’ isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a long-term ”Ëcareer’. It’s an approach that is inspiring but also one that can still ruffle a few feathers ”â at the end of Sonic Youth’s (excellent) set that followed, Kim Gordon’s thanks list included a “thanks to Steve Albini for being an asshole”Â. Playful banter or genuine grievance? – perhaps she still hasn’t forgotten Rapeman’s classic ”ËKim Gordon’s Panties’, referenced by Thurston earlier in the set when he introduced one song as being about “Steve Albini’s panties”Â!
Anyway, Sonic Youth rocked in the New Year in fine form, bringing the night to a fitting climax with ”ËKool Thing’. This first Strange Days event was indeed a cool thing and I look forward to it becoming a regular feature on the rock ”Ën’ roll calendar, although ATP are certainly going to have their work cut out in putting together a bill to top this one!