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Friday, January 31, 2014

Big Black: The Hammer Party

BIG BLACK: THE HAMMER PARTY (1982-1984/1986)

1) Steelworker; 2) Live In A Hole; 3) Dead Billy; 4) I Can Be Killed; 5) The Crack; 6) Rip; 7) Cables; 8) Pigeon Kill; 9) I'm A Mess; 10) Texas; 11) Seth; 12) Jump The Climb; 13) Racer-X; 14) Shotgun; 15) The Ugly American; 16) Deep Six; 17) Sleep!; 18) Big Payback.

No question about it, Steve Albini is one sick puppy. As far as I can tell, there are no credible re­cords of his going through any serious childhood traumas — unless, of course, the move from Pasadena, California to Missoula, Montana at the tender age of 12 counts as one, which may be possible — so blame it on a rogue gene or something. Of course, it is a natural thing for artists of all types to focus on the underbelly of society, but some go farther, stay longer, and breathe louder than others, and Albini is most definitely on the short list here.  

I have to confess that, as a rule, I do not experience any pleasure at getting my face stuffed in a toilet bowl, metaphorically speaking — not to mention that it happens all too often in real life (metaphorically speaking again!) for me to want to come home and get even more of that out of my stereo system. I do believe in freedom of expression, and think that the presence of people like G. G. Allin is a sign of healthy society / art scene, rather than the opposite (well, at least as long as the guy does not take his laxative on my front porch, that is) — but that does not mean I would ever want to waste time listening to a G. G. Allin record, God rest his soul; the guy is just an extreme example of a social activist, and has about as much to do with «music» or «art» in ge­neral as «Pussy Riot», or Abbie Hoffman, or the Holy Roman Emperor.

Steve Albini, on the other hand, is definitely an artist, and the «Big Black» project was founded by him in 1981 with a definite aim of producing art — socially relevant art, that is, rather than artistically irrelevant social activity. By his own account, he enjoyed the brutality and viscerality of both heavy metal and hardcore punk, but ultimately found both genres laughable, a feeling that many of us could probably empathize with: in my own case, I have to always remember to put myself in a particular frame of mind when listening either to Iron Maiden or the Dead Kennedys, otherwise it all ends in a facepalm barrage.

Thus, the idea behind Big Black was to make music that sounded equally loud, furious, and vis­ceral, but at the same time could really kick the shit out of the listener. Something that would be very painful, from a musical angle, but would also look real, would make sure that you are suf­fering from an actual cause, something that could turn your insides out and bulldoze them on the spot, and make you feel enlightened and grateful rather than simply offended for the sake of be­ing offended. In other words, the kind of stuff that the Nick Cave-led Birthday Party were doing at the same time — except that the Birthday Party had freakier, more abstract lyrics, and depen­ded all too much on the «musical epilepsy» of their frontman, whereas Albini placed his bet on far more straightforward, accessible lyrical imagery and a clearer, sterner head.

The Hammer Party, released in 1986, was not a proper album, but a compilation of Big Black's first two EPs: Lungs (1982) and Bulldozer (1983) — subsequent CD re-releases would also in­clude a third EP, Racer-X from 1984. All three, however, are essential building blocks of the Big Black legend, and nothing could be more natural than starting the story right from where it be­gins. In 1982, «Big Black» was really a one-man project, with Albini recording all the guitar, bass, and vocal parts himself, entrusting the percussion duties to a drum machine (credited as a full-time band member by the name of «Roland»!), and only occasionally letting his college friend John Bohnen help him out with saxophone parts (or, rather, «bleats»). A year later, on Bulldozer, Big Black was already a band, with Jeff Pezzati on bass and Santiago Durango on second guitar — and this was also the breaking point where Albini arrived at his trademark guitar sound, «inven­ting industrial music in the process», as some say, although, of course, a more correct answer would have been «merging industrial music with hardcore punk» (Einstürzende Neubauten had their first «industrial» album out in 1980, and the roots of the genre go way back). Thus, any nar­rative on Big Black that kicks off with Atomizer would be somewhat... headless.

Already on Lungs, Albini shows himself to be a master of tone, above everything else. He him­self was modest enough to all but disown the songs, either because he found the lyrics too crude or the «search process for best tone ever» far from complete, but most of the songs sound fairly great to my ears, at least. ʽSteelworkerʼ opens with a guitar part that I could only describe as «syphilitic funk» — a melody that would rather be expected on a heavy metal album, but pitched all the way to high heaven, shrill, trebly, pulling the nerves right out of your teeth, as Albini cheerfully informs us that "the only good policeman is a dead one / the only good laws aren't en­forced" and then goes on examining his deepest murder instincts. It's not exactly scary, but the experience is more disturbing, indeed, than any random heavy metal tune of the year, or decade.

Subsequent topics do not stray far away from the commonly unfathomable — exploring the lower depths on ʽLive In A Holeʼ, dabbling in Vietnam zombie trash on ʽDead Billyʼ, inviting suicide on ʽI Can Be Killedʼ, and so on. Melodically, the songs all follow the New Wave aesthetics, but seem more influenced by acts like Pere Ubu, Wire, Joy Division, etc., rather than Albini's punk scene competitors — which is already enough to make whatever the guy is doing more interesting for the modern listener, and that is not yet mentioning all the different guitar tones (where the «white lightning» of songs like ʽSteelworkerʼ and ʽI Can Be Killedʼ is opposed quite radically to the «black terror» of bass-heavy songs like ʽRipʼ and ʽLive In A Holeʼ).

The «textbook» Albini, however, only arrives on Bulldozer — for ʽCablesʼ, he invents his «clan­ky» sound by sticking sheet metal clips in his guitar picks, so that every note now sounds like the clang of a weapon against a metal shield. ʽCablesʼ still remains one of the best exponents of that sound, with a brief «teaser» introduction as a lesson on how it works (of sorts), and the cruel lyrics (inspired by personal experience with a Montana abattoir) perfectly matching the cruelty of the new sound. Not that the other lyrics lag anywhere behind — the entire EP is taken over by such delicious subjects as poisoning pigeons and buying knives, and populated by colorful cha­racters with hick, racist, and bigoted backgrounds. Just the kind of thing, in other words, that de­serves a special manner of guitar playing invented in special honor of it.

ʽCablesʼ has the meanest and ugliest sound, but Albini can also throw «hilarious» in the can, too, as is the case with ʽTexasʼ, which is sort of an «avant-hardcore» freakout, a series of speedy buildups and comedowns serving as a freaky background for one of the most laconic and the most vicious putdowns of the Lone Star in history — the only reason why Dallas never made a persona non grata out of Albini in return is that nobody in Dallas probably heard the record in the first place, except those few like-minded fellows who hate their own state anyway. ʽSethʼ is much darker in tone, beginning with a taped phone hotline chock-full of eloquent racial slurs bordering on the absurdist (where else will you hear Martin Luther King called a "doubly-dege­nerate, Jew-led, Red jungle bunny"? Priceless!) and building its protest rage from there. But musically, my favourite tune is ʽI'm A Messʼ, if only for the utterly terrific bass-guitar duo that unintentionally ends up sounding like a hardcore take on ʽThe Hut Of Baba Yagaʼ — in addition to everything else, let us not forget that Big Black actually cared about their melodies, rarely letting themselves get too carried away with just the rage, just the lyrics, or even just the guitar tone. There is all that, yes, but there are also interesting and serious musical ideas scattered all over the place, although they only become noticeable once the overall impression stops clouding the brain and it becomes interested in the compositional process as well.

Racer-X, in comparison, is not that much of a big leap forward, since the basic formula has been established on Bulldozer and the band members remain the same. Nevertheless, the title track, ʽThe Ugly Americanʼ (with John Bohnen returning on «sax bleats» to make it all sound like an early precursor to John Zorn's Bad City), and ʽSleep!ʼ are all treasurable highlights, particularly ʽRacer-Xʼ with its alternating soundscapes of grim lonesome drum machine and all-out guitar nightmare — most of the other songs have their moments, too, even if, on the whole, this third EP seems to be more of a «breather» in between Bulldozer as the moment of Big Black's true arrival and Atomizer as its first full-scale LP-length statement. But who cares about particularities? The whole package, taken together, deserves its certified thumbs up, and, to this day, remains one of the strongest musical indictments of retrograde darkness ever recorded. Yeah, yeah, I know, in reality Albini is merely exorcising his own personal demons, but there's no harm in driving them through certain areas of the American landscape along the way.

Check "The Hammer Party" (CD) on Amazon

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