Somehow, I feel that “Big Black” is a group that never really gets their due. Yes, any alternative rock fan worth their weight in salt knows the name “Steve Albini.” Albini is an infamous producer that patented a rather trebly, high pitched industrial-ish rumble that mixed drum machines, punk rock, high pitched guitar sounds (everything in “Big Black” is “treble”) and an absolute dedication to DIY that has made him one of the most respected and sought after producers in the business.
He is also one of the grumpiest guys in the world of rock and roll: his lengthy rants on well…everything are rather infamous. He called the CD edition of “Atomizer” “The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape” and chastised the buyer in the CD liner notes for wasting their money on an “inferior” sounding product.
Whatever his hang ups and personality quirks, the man is a living legend but mostly for his production skills and not for his songwriting. Which is a shame: the man developed an intriguing production style, had a way with catchy riffs and melodies and even had something to say lyrically, especially on the previously mentioned debut album “Atomizer” which is, naturally, our review of the day.
Now, what Albini has to say lyrically isn’t very pretty. His topics generally concern boredom, mid-western insanity, serial killers, self harm, serial child rapists and a variety of other nasty topics. There is no bright lights or sunshine in the lyrical world of Albini, as made clear on the track “Steelworker” from debut EP “Lungs” where he chants “I work with my hands…and I kill what I eat” over a harsh, grinding groove that makes it clear that Albini is coming for you.
Focusing on negative lyrical matters is nothing new but Albini goes the extra mile and sings everything from the first person perspective. It’s never “they’re steelworkers, they kill what they eat” or “they live in Jordan, they do what they like.” It’s “I’M a steelworker…I kill what I eat” and “this is Jordan, WE do what we like.” He puts himself right into the boots of the negative people about which he sings.
This caused some serious controversy when “Atomizer” came out, especially because of the song “Kerosene” Albini’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of rock and roll theatrical performance.
Albini would no doubt baulk at such a statement: calling his music theatrical would no doubt insult him more deeply than calling him a sell out.
But I don’t know how else you could define this song: it starts out with an insane, high pitch ringing (one of Albini’s trademark sounds) that builds into a wild, rampaging guitar, bass and Roland Drum stomp that eventually drops out to a bass and drum groove.
Albini then begins detailing the mentality of what he believes is a typical, mid-western, small town loser with no ambition, no future and no hope. He uses a minimum of words and phrases and repeats them regularly to reinforce their strength.
“There’s never anything to do in this town…lived here all my life…probably come to die in this town…lived here all my life…nothing to do but sit around home, sit around the house and stare at the walls, stare at each other and wait till we die, stare at each other and wait till we die…there’s never anything to do in this town…lived here my whole life…”
Chilling and a feeling that anybody who’s ever lived in the mid-west can identify with completely. And then he says a single phrase that reawakens the monstrous guitars “there’s kerosene around…it’s just something to do…” He repeats this phrase a few times, with various degrees of intensity before screaming “SET ME ON FIRE!”
The rest of the song then de-evolves (in a good way) into a noisy mess of over trebled guitars, bashing drum machines, screams and even a false start. The song perfectly defines the Albini mythos and style in a matter of seconds.
But there are other songs on this album too! Imagine. Opener, “Jordan, Minnesota” is a song about the (alleged) child abuse ring in the town of Jordan and while the truthfulness of the story has been hotly debated for years, hearing Albini sing “this is Jordan…we do what we like” over and over again is truly creepy. But only if you know the story: without knowing the story it’s nowhere near as effective but it still has a great riff and great drive.
“Passing Complexion” features more wildly over trebled guitars (really, how the hell doe she make that high pitched “shing!” sound on the guitars?) playing intricate, strange and relatively complex guitar parts.
The album does have a basic sound and style that bleeds over to the rest of the tracks: if you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard them all. They vary in the riffs and melodies as well as the arrangements and the lyrical focus but all set this mood of grinding, inescapable mid-west despair that is simultaneously gripping and wearing on the consciousness.
The CD version of “Atomizer” contains some bonus tracks from the “Heart Beat” EP. The title track is a cover of the Wire tune from “Chairs Missing” and has a similar menacing atmosphere but builds to Albini screams instead of the chanting of the original. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Final verdict? If you like noisy, difficult but well composed punk/industrial style rock, it’s worth a buy. In fact, buy everything by Big Black: you only need to get three CD’s: this, The Hammer Party and Songs About Fucking.
p.s. Big Black doesn’t really sound like “punk” or “industrial” but those are the closest genre terms I can find for the style they play. It’s definitely a unique sound that Albini utilized in all subsequent bands with minor variations.
Song to YouTube:
“Kerosene” and “Jordan, Minnesota” will tell you all that you need to know about Big Black. If you like those songs, you’ll like the rest.