If one was coming up in the 1990s and listened to underground music (and was, most likely, a “dude”), the landscape of indie rock was pretty well shaped by a few preceding soldiers. One of the least talked-about was Bitch Magnet, a trio (sometime quartet) from Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Oberlin, Ohio who would give rise to a good chunk of the post-hardcore landscape of the time. Active from 1986-1987 through the turn of the 1990s, Bitch Magnet waxed three proper LPs (one for their own Roman Candle imprint and two for Communion), a live EP, and a couple of singles before disbanding. Vocalist/bassist and principal songwriter Sooyoung Park went on to form the delicately-paced but profoundly compelling Seam; guitarist Jon Fine later joined Vineland and eventually formed Coptic Light; and drummer Orestes Morfin went on to helm the trap set in Walt Mink. Their records – Star Booty, Umber, and Ben Hur – have been out of print for nearly two decades and are seeing a renaissance as part of a new three-disc set on Temporary Residence, remastered with a smattering of alternate takes and a few studio extras.
The late 1980s were a fertile time in underground rock, post-punk, college rock or whatever one wants to call it, and for a band that now seem ahead of their time, it’s pretty easy to put the pieces together – Hüsker Dü, Moss Icon, and Big Black were, to varying degrees, part of their early approach and those poles never really left. Half-sung and half-spoken/shouted vocals, often somewhat buried in the mix, were mated to a big, uncoiled swirl of guitar and motorik, stop-on-a-dime percussion (sometimes aided by a bit of Roland-style drum machine a la Big Black/early Bastro). All that being said, what Bitch Magnet had – and, with the exception of Codeine, in greater stead than their peers – was a real knack for writing wistful pop melodies that make a clean scramble out of the mud and thrash. A friend of this writer said of the group, in comparison with Seam, that the former was always too “tough” which, in retrospect, is curious. Sure, Fine’s massive chords and Morfin’s incredible technique could front a hard shell, but Park conveys an equally great degree of honest, even reined-in lyricism. It’s not entirely saccharine, but there is sweetness in his delivery of “Americruiser” that keeps the murmurs and strums from edging into Slinty territory. As a set, the Temporary Residence reissues move in reverse chronology, which is somewhat surprising since Ben Hur, while touted as the beginning of math rock’s stark precision, seems more like a cap on the preceding sessions’ wry Jekyll-Hyde approach to emotive brightness and raging post-punk.