Of North America

I’ve spent a chunk of time in 2017 considering the compatibility of my centrist politics with the music I love. I’ve spent the best part of seven years waiting to see Shellac in concert. What could go wrong?

How does the band Shellac relate to the identity politics and left-authoritarianism that predominate in 2017? Here is a band exhibiting zero bullshit, a wilful toughness that is in fact a carapace, and conceptual schtick worn so opaque as to become invisible. They sing graphically about violence, but only to deconstruct it. Their frontman, Steve Albini, is generally averse to revealing his tastes (be they musical, political or cultural), but then occasionally lets forth searing polemic that is free from ideology or branding. I think he may be an old-school left-wing warrior at heart, but with enough pragmatism and self-awareness that his act, even for a centrist ‘dad’ like me, comes across as charming.

I showed up at Camden’s Electric Ballroom back in October with acres of time to spare, in order to sate my intrigue for the band’s fans. (‘Do they also read his sporadic food blog?’ I wondered.) Having endured the support act, Iona Fortune, while she delivered a joyless take on New Age music, I cast my eyes around, searching in vain for people not dressed in black. It seemed unlikely that these men and women (but mostly men) used to frequent ATP weekends, and I took no pleasure in this realisation. The PA blasted out a hellish cocktail of grimly noisy no-wave, the kind of music Spotify would only cautiously recommend to listeners of Cabaret Voltaire or Executive Slacks. I took immense pleasure in this.

The band set up their own gear, of course: two of the three members resembled harangued journalists from Spotlight or Zodiac; all three would make James Murphy (once a disciple of Mr. Albini, his records are still mastered by the band’s bassist, Bob Weston) look glamorous by comparison. Judging by their demeanour and dress-code, they could have been spectators at their children’s baseball practice on a chilly autumn morning. Predictably, there was no backdrop, stage-scenery or, even, fancy lighting. They rock up, they rock, they up.

“Shellac rock up, they rock, they up.”

And what about the rock? It’s superficially impenetrable and uncompromising – much like a rock. The band is the tightest outfit you’ll witness all year – and this is a year in which you’ll hopefully have seen LCD Soundsystem and The National. Perhaps the paucity of instruments works in their favour; nonetheless, theirs is a performance to inspire awe and respect. The opening songs delivered snappy ricochets and bags of sass, “My Black Ass” in particular hitting really, really hard.

Two-thirds of their most recent album, Dude Incredible, was unleashed on the crowd. Some of these newer songs explored sonic territories that sounded hostile to their neighbours, for example the title-track, which shifted from rollicking, galloping Western, via an almost gaudy bridge, and then to a waltz of the Antichrist. Such songs have no forebear in Shellac’s back-catalogue. They nestled amongst other recent songs like “All The Surveyors” (here shorn of its ribald-choral prelude, but still bewildering), which ought to be on the soundtrack for a post-hardcore sequel to Hamilton. “Surveyor” (no relation) was monolithic and unavoidable, like having a truck full of beer-barrels emptied over you. Every song of theirs that is in some way middlebrow was rendered more ultraviolent and yet more fun.

There were also brand new songs, with wordy anecdotal introductions. (In fact, throughout the set, Albini delivered these strangely sing-song monologues that initially nonplussed me, and then delighted me.) These were welcome diversions, but only ever sideshows to the band’s customary set-pieces. “Wingwalker” was distended and resembled an elaborate prank or bad trip. “Prayer to God” (the opener to my favourite Shellac album, 1000 Hurts) swallowed up a lengthy rumination on murder. Finally, at the set’s precipice, was “The End of Radio”. On record, this song is unrelenting and trying (but in a good way). Live, its three constituent chords became hypnotic and strangely calming, an anchor for the surrounding theatrics. Mr. Albini spun an elaborate yarn that took in physics and metaphysics, consumerism and eschatology. Eventually, he and drummer Todd Trainer dismantled their machinery while Mr. Weston gamely continued with those mantra-like chords, savagely extracted from his super-resonant bass guitar. At this point, we sped past the realms of mere ‘performance’, and approached the outlying provinces of ‘performance art’.

“We sped past ‘performance’, and approached  ‘performance art’.”

And yet. Does the band intend for this spectacle, spun out night after night on their sporadic tours, to attain the status of art? It seems the antithesis of their workmanlike attitude (Mr. Albini, for example, insists he is a “recording engineer”, and not a record producer). It nuzzles at pretence, even as the trio bristle at the idea of pretence serving a purpose.

The gig left me baffled but, on a visceral level, overjoyed. Battered and bruised, I emerged from the Electric Ballroom having finally witnessed one of the great punk bands of our time. But the contradictions within Shellac continue to nag at me, like a loose thread on one’s shirt, catching on an improperly-filed fingernail.

Shellac played at Electric Ballroom, London, 10/10/17:

  • Canada
  • My Black Ass
  • Copper
  • Compliant
  • Scrappers (new song)
  • Riding Bikes
  • Squirrel Song
  • Mailman (new song)
  • You Came in Me
  • Steady As She Goes
  • (new song, untitled)
  • Dude Incredible
  • Prayer to God
  • All The Surveyors
  • Killers
  • Dog and Pony Show
  • Wingwalker
  • Surveyor
  • The End of Radio

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