Shellac Dude Incredible

[Touch and Go; 2014]

Styles: indie rock, math rock, minimalist rock, pious rock
Others: Don Cabellero, Polvo, the Jesus Lizard, Slint

Shellac are puritans. Not just on a personal level, what with Albini’s notorious railings against digitization and an all-but defunct music industry, but also on a musical level. Since At Action Park in 1994, the band’s adherence to Spartan instrumentation, minimalist structures, and a brutally dry approach to their own sound has meant that, without being overtly preachy about it (at least on record), their austere noise rock embodies its own anti-ostentation, anti-materialism, and anti-decadence morality. And for two decades now, the Chicago three-piece have remained committed to their own ethics of sonic forbearance, releasing albums that have veered in their hi-fidelity from the consistently sublime (At Action Park, 1000 Hurts) to the sporadically inspired (Excellent Italian Greyhound, Terraform). And now, with their fifth album to date, you might be unsurprised to hear that the trio haven’t backslid from their asceticism, since Dude Incredible is every bit as lean as its older siblings when it comes to reverb, overdubbings, FX, and samples. You might also be unsurprised to hear that, despite maintaining the Shellac brand of integrity and excellence, it doesn’t throw up too many surprises.

Not that they haven’t changed at all since 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, and not that their piety is so entrenched they aren’t able to laugh at themselves. Opener “Dude Incredible” sees Albini possibly mocking his own anachronistic dedication to “manly” virtues of honor and honesty, painting comically outdated stereotypes of men via such lyrics as, “Oh my brothers/ And oh my other comrades/ Let’s leave this place directly/ Go where the females congregate.” Moreover, after a cagey initial third ends with the revelation that Albini’s band of brothers suddenly found themselves surrounded by their enemies, the proceedings burst into straight-ahead thrashing that, if it weren’t for the crystal transparency of the trio’s setup, would almost embody a departure from Shellac to the squalid days of Big Black.

And it’s with the title track’s leaning into the fuzzier edges of distortion that Dude Incredible separates itself to an appreciable degree from the Shellac catalog. “The People’s Microphone” barrels out of the gates in a torrent of hairy notes, while “Surveyor” features a revolving, thickly cut riff that would nearly pass for metal if it weren’t for Bob Weston’s characteristic montage of spoken word and cantankerous invective, which on this occasion lambasts “Western expansion” and all the surveyors who “wanted accurate maps of the country.” Yet aside from this injection of extra firepower, all the hallmarks are in place: the compositional economy, the refusal to obfuscate instruments in smoke and mirrors, and the unshowy musicianship, which together all imbue this latest entry in the band’s discography with its figurative moralism. And if the increased brunt of a “Surveyor” expresses anything beyond this moralism, it’s that Albini has become increasingly frustrated by an indie world that has repeatedly disregarded the threesome’s steadfast attachment to musical hygiene, and that since 2007 has only become more superficial and duplicitous.

Yet regardless of how much the style-over-substance approach of the current indie scene is leaving them behind in a profusion of sub-genres and crossovers, there’s something quietly inspiring about a band that has stuck to their guns for so long without compromising an inch. The staccato 6/8 hammering of “Compliant” is executed with all the merciless precision and wry indignation that became a Shellac trademark long ago, while the restless “You Came In Me” is throttled by a guitar that’s all biting treble, without any of the wasteful fat that bass would have pumped into Albini’s EQ. Additionally, the scabrous regret of the three-chord progression in “Gary” attests to how they’re still keeping their melodies and phrases to a bare minimum of notes, as if claiming that they’d sully the purity of the song’s emotional message by going beyond what’s strictly necessary to convey it. As a consequence, the album and Shellac themselves unconsciously urge us to have faith in our own selves and the worth of what we’re already doing, and not to succumb to the vapid caprices of fashion.

This stubbornness has a price though, which is that Dude Incredible occasionally comes close to repeating the past. The dynamic stop-startism of “All The Surveyors” wields an accelerated guitar-line that bears a passing resemblance to the rhythmic core of “Steady As She Goes” (Excellent Italian Greyhound), while the coiled opening to “Dude Incredible” recalls the sinewy intro to “Boche’s Dick” (At Action Park). Yet even if the band can be accused of being a little too happy with what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years, they haven’t completely rested on their laurels. Aside from the above-mentioned exploitation of gain, Weston enjoys a more prominent role than in previous records, with “Riding Bikes” and its nostalgic bass-melody emerging as unexpected highlights. Admittedly, a heightened democratic spirit isn’t enough to recommend the album, so it’s also worth mentioning the consistency of the album, which unlike Terraform (“Didn’t We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are”) and Excellent Italian Greyhound (“Genuine Lulabelle”) doesn’t suffer from any missteps or indulgences. Most importantly, however, is that the band continue to pack a righteous punch, and regardless of whether they personally uphold the ideals their music can be said to represent, they’ve set us all another salutary example with Dude Incredible.

Links: Shellac - Touch and Go

Most Read