Michael Edward joins a shawl of sound engineers as they swarm to witness Shellac at the Manchester Academy 2.
Tonight saw noise rock legends Shellac descend on the Manchester Academy 2 to an anticipant crowd of punk rockers and what we can assume were sound engineers.
The band has a storied history, especially Steve Albini, who notoriously engineered pretty much anything good with guitars on in the late 80s and 90s (the big one being Nirvana‘s In Utero, if you don’t know, now you know), as well as playing in his infamous, and even more acidic band Big Black. Bob Weston brings an impressive CV as well, playing in Volcano Suns and the legendary Mission of Burma. The trio is completed by the formidable precision of drummer Todd Trainer. Needless to say, there’s a wealth of underground pedigree on the stage.
First of all we’re treated to support from Glaswegian electronic ambient act Iona Fortune. Her compositions were quite lovely, often combining the Guquin (that classic Chinese string instrument sound that gets used everywhere) with other textures and huge swells of bass.
Some of it was reminiscent of David Bowie‘s Moss Garden, and other parts Tim Hecker‘s Virgins, though the room seemed rather befuddled and in some cases nonplussed to be presented with an ambient artist before a noise rock show.
Shellac are full of surprises. One might expect from their records that their skeletal, often minimal arrangements and pure aggression would translate to a vicious, if rather confrontational and perhaps poe faced live show, but good lord were we proven wrong for our assumption.
Steve Albini and Bob Weston prove to be downright charming personalities on stage, completely at ease and with the audience in the palms of their hand, but less in a showbiz way, more in an uncle spinning a yarn kind of way. They emerge from backstage and launch into the first song with no count in, telegraphically able to tell when to slam their first piercing chord. At this point we should mention that while we’re familiar with At Action Park and some of 1000 Hz, we’re by no means familiar with their entire catalogue, and recognise a paltry 3 songs in the entire hour’s show. This was however, not a barrier to enjoyment.
From the off it’s evident that Shellac are incredibly tight. The grooves are locked and muscular in a way that’s somehow reminiscent of James Brown‘s “Everything is a drum” attitude to composition. For a band featuring two of the best recording engineers in the world this shouldn’t be a surprise, but by god do all the instruments sound fantastic, particularly Steve‘s guitar. Strapped around his midriff rather than the usual over the shoulder configuration, like a belt with a ridiculously oversized buckle, it gives forth one of the finest pure distorted guitar tones we’ve ever heard in our whole damn lives. It is razor sharp, like AC/DC in HD.
The first run of songs features fan favourite and the first of the three we recognise, My Black Ass, whose staccato riff instantly gets the blood pumping. It’s followed by a short song with some incredible guitar playing featuring a completely unexpected little finger tapping move we’ve never seen done before. In the parlance of the kids, it was sick.
Throughout the set the band move between the sheets of noise and their looping, overlaying, minimalist rhythmic patters that sometimes recall Steve Reich, and a love of pure rock and roll. One song mid set genuinely swings like deconstructed Chuck Berry, and another calls to mind Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well. On more than one occasion we were tempted to throw up the devil horns.
Their stage patter was a delight, as Bob found time to take questions from the audience, not once but twice. One audience member was insistent on knowing what the drum kit was, and was greeted with the weary sarcastic answer of a band made of two thirds engineers who are most likely sick of this shit by now. Another asked for a Stooges cover, to which Bob replied “I only know how to play Shellac songs, sorry“. Other highlights included a tense drum solo from Todd, whilst Steve and Bob hid side stage, only to both jump back to their microphones in a highly entertaining fashion.
Prayer To God provided the peak of the show, Albini‘s voice truly electrifying as it moved to the lyric “HIM, JUST FUCKING KILL HIM“. The song’s studio ending was then sabotaged, with the usual lyric replaced with an hilarious elaboration on the song’s plea to god for the murder of a cheating lover and her man. The line “Baby Jesus? I don’t ask you for much. Just where I left my keys, or that one time with the cops the other week. Do me a solid and just murder this motherfucker, okay?” is greeted with hearty chuckles.
The show’s end was an unexpected spectacle, as the band followed Crow’s pounding drumbeat and sudden explosion into its ripping closing riff with a bizarre arrangement featuring a three chord bass riff and Albini quoting multiple songs, including Joy Division‘s Transmission and Sweet‘s Ballroom Blitz, as well as a diatribe about how the snare drum is now a star who wants to take you up to his hotel room after the show to do blow, which is what he calls cocaine, they mean the same thing but he uses the word blow to save time. This is accompanied by Trainer walking around the stage, out of his drum stool, reacting to Albini‘s diatribe with his own snare. The band then pack up their equipment while Bob Weston continues to play his three chord riff. When all the equipment is away, he stops and announces “I think they’re done.“
We’re left satisfied that we’d just seen one of the most unique bands touring today, and more importantly, one of the most fun.
Photo from Shellac – Band Facebook Page.