Shellac – A sound so angular you can see the corners

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I’ve no idea how many bands I’ve seen and gigs I’ve been to over the years but it will run well into the hundreds and while it’s a long time now since I pretty much lived in gig venues seeing several bands a week, I still enjoy getting along to the odd gig and feel the fissure of excitement at seeing a live band as when a live band is good they produce pure alchemy.  Much as I enjoy the whole experience of a live gig it’s not often that I feel real excitement and anticipation before a gig in the way that perhaps I did when I was younger, after all I’ve seen most of the bands I want to see or can see and as ‘new’ musical styles come around I often find myself remembering the bands who did it first and invariably did it better.  A couple of Sundays ago however saw me very excited as I was going to see Shellac, a band for who the word seminal is rightly used, but who I’d never seen before.  They were also playing at the Brudenell, arguably the best small venue in Leeds. For those not aware Shellac contain Steve Albini who’s sound engineering fingerprints are all over some of the great bands and sounds over the last thirty years including Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Helmet, Robert Plan, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, The Cribs, The Fleshtones, The Wedding Present, Joanna Newsom, Superchunk, Low, Dirty Three, Veruca Salt, The Auteurs and along with fellow sonic engineer Bob Weston on base and Todd Trainer on drums create a fearfully sharp and angular sound, a sound so powerful it made me question why any band would need more than three people in it.  There was no slack and no hiding place, every chord, note, noise, crack and beat could be heard and differentiated.  I couldn’t help but compare it to bands where there are sometimes numerous bodies on stage that it has me wondering what they are all doing and what they bring to the sound.  In Shellac’s case it was clear that each member was bringing something unique to the party.

I liked that way the band was set up, democratically with no one ‘fronting the band’, guitar on one side, drums in the middle, bass on the other side.  Todd Trainer on the drums I found mesmerising to watch, he seemed to have arms that went on for ever and I can’t recall any other drummer producing a crack on the skins quiet like it and he would often go completely limp and slump over the drums as if asleep before rousing himself and ploughing his energy into the next furious beat.  With Shellac you don’t get a traditional song with a clear verse chorus arrangement or even one steady rhythm, instead songs will ebb and flow around numerous different rhythms within the same song which creates a jarring intensity and tension as you are never quite sure which corner the track is going take next or which band member is going to grab it by the scruff of the neck but whoever does they are going to do it powerfully.

Within this fantastically chunky sound Albini barks out biting lyrics of humour and sarcasm and then the band stop for a Q&A session with the crowd.  Yep you read that right, questions are shouted out and answers pinged back “did you bring your own drum mikes with you?” “No Nerd”.  What’s the best thing to see in Chicago? “The Bean, a piece of public art in one of the parks” etc.  Few questions later then then launch into the next crunching track.  Another thing that I found unusual was the way Albini played his guitar, low slung a la Hooky, but with the strap strapped around his waist and not over his shoulder.  Try it it’s not easy.

I left feeling really privileged and it was the best gig of the year for me and unlike many times over the years when you build up a band only to be disappointed when you see them I could go and watch Shellac every night and never be bored.  My ears might not thank me though.

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