1986 - 1987: Big Black - Atomizer / Songs About Fucking

Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”

The Song of Roland, Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753 (circa 1140 C.E.)

It’s only a coincidence that the drum machine that helped unite electronic music with traditional masculinity shares its name with an 8th century Frankish war hero. Though according to his literary depiction — poems limn him as a broad-shouldered he-man with a deafening horn — the Roland of legend makes a fitting namesake for the Roland TR-606, the drum machine of choice of Steve Albini and Big Black.

Big Black wasn’t the first band to use a drum machine, or even a Roland. However, in the early 80s, Albini’s aggressive noise-rock outfit was one of the few bands that could rely on a little whirring gadget and still come off as unquestionably (if slightly satirically) macho. It was a stunt decades in the making.

In the early 20th century electricity in general was perceived as threat to masculinity. Electric current, and the chic urban modernity that came with it, was expected to wash away strength and virility in a wave of comfort and soft living. In his 1901 novel Labor, Emile Zola shows electricity pushing humanity toward an Eloi-like existence defined by unending leisure. Others, significantly less optimistic, saw power’s shocking influence as a factor in speeding all of civilization into a Spenglerian decline. While these fears of castration-by-a-thousand-amps did fade, it was decades before electronic music got it’s cultural bar mitzvah and was welcomed into the world of masculine pursuits.

From its early days, music primarily produced through circuit boards did not put hair on chests — it was largely the realm of sweater-clad academics (see this incriminating photo of Stockhausen). Even its first foray into the mainstream was headed by androgynous goths like Gary Numan and the faux-andriod neuters of Kraftwerk. Partially, this is a holdover from those old concerns: Twiddling the knobs on a synthesizer did not hold the same masculine allure as pounding out a beat on a drum kit. It wasn’t until the advent of industrial music that electronics started to beef up their effete image. And here the semantics are decidedly not a coincidence. Early practitioners of industrial music self-labeled, consciously attempting to associate their sounds with the gritty, blue-collar world of machine shops, blast furnaces, and steel mills.

With their two mid-80s albums, Atomizer and Songs About Fucking, Big Black drove away any remaining vestiges of electronic music’s frou-frou reputation. Both these albums present a raw, angry, and distinctly male ethos — and they do it using a Roland TR-606 (later, using the less evocatively named EMU Drumulator). In fact, the drum machine was as crucial to the band’s work as its hyper-masculine affectations. The machine was even credited in liner notes as “Roland,” as if the menacing beats on “L Dopa” were created in-studio by a burly Frankish percussionist and not an 18-volt appliance.

Roland isn’t undeserving of the credit, either. The persistent rhythms it provides on “Kerosene” give the song a taut, suspenseful energy. The device’s mechanic precision and cold textures help color all of the band’s work, providing a rigid backbone for Albini to build his bellicose tracks around. The combination of Roland with Albini’s dissonant guitar and transgressive lyrics created a novel effect. Big Black’s songs are rooted in electronic and mechanical sounds but use the direct, aggressive nature of traditional rock and punk. The songs often traffic in dark and ugly tropes that present a critical view of masculinity (sample: “feel my fist/my fist of love”), but Albini’s complex relationship with gender politics aside, the music is not twee. Listen to “Strange Things” and you can hear how masterfully the two realms are blended — Roland’s percussion sounds right in line with the thumping bass and guttural yells of its human counterparts.

Big Black’s catalog is a stunning combination of electric power with animal magnetism. Where Kraftwerk used drum machines to transcend the physical to a Computer World, Big Black put them to work creating brutish, visceral Songs About Fucking. Electronics plugged into pure atavism. Where the machine may have seemed more in place in dance music or a karaoke bar, it was now a tool fit for anger-fueled aural destruction. Like the Roland of legend blowing his horn, the drum machine could now signal chaos and violence.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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