KOKO, London | May 31, 2016
“In this beautiful place, illuminated with sparkles of light and you beautiful sexy people, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.” Steve Albini’s caustic lyrical sardonicism has captured the ears of bruised bedroom thrashers since the early-Eighties, but tonight, gazing adoringly over KOKO’s glitterball-dusted ballroom, his sentiments are calmly professed and sincerely offered. Cutting a relaxed (and slightly portlier) profile on their first UK tour since 2014’s Dude Incredible, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shellac have grown cuddly in their middle age. But lurching into Prayer to God’s cleaving homicidal refrain – “Fucking kill him. Kill him already, kill him” – it’s clear to see that the Chicagoan minimalists haven’t lost an ounce of their perverse anti-populist clout.
Before Shellac make to the stage, we’re treated to a solo performance from Albini’s friend and long-time collaboratorHelen Money. The experimental cellist announces herself with a looming feedback-driven ache; an anguished outcry that soon flourishes into a looped frenzy of swampy riffs, gnarled drone and apocalyptic strikes. Underpinned by drum-machine and piano samples, Money’s intricately-layered constructions provide a strong platform from which to exhibit her extensive toolbox of unorthodox instrumental techniques. During ‘Every Confidence’ she intrepidly plunders her cello’s tonal potential to cinematic effect, her tumultuous beehive tremolo accelerating into a fevered boiling point before crumbling into languished monastic stasis. There’s little here in terms of lip service, but Helen Money’s tortured, distorted expansions prove infinitely more expressive than any fleeting moments of mumbled discourse.
Shellac’s introduction is equally as industrious. Barrelling straight and true into the retching stabs of ‘Canada’, their notes serve only to punctuate the perfect stage silence between each murderous chug. ‘Watch Song’ quickly follows; Albini’s irascible posturing – “Hey man, I wanna have a fight with you” – savagely cut down by his guitar’s antagonistic sneer. Hammering his snare with lips curled, Todd Trainer provides a forceful yet impressively restrained metronome for Albini’s schizophrenic foreplay. Once Albini’s guitar has had its last laugh, Trainer goes to town, his virtuoso outro prompting Albini and bassist Bob Weston to pick up sticks and smash cymbals in accompaniment.
Tonally-speaking, it’s striking how faithful Shellac’s live show is to the band’s studio sound. During ‘My Black Ass’, Weston’s corrosive Ampeg growl is just as perfect a counterpoint to Albini’s bolting angle grinder chug as it is in At Action Park, and Trainer’s acidic rhythm continues to cut through this abrasion with surgical dexterity. There’s no lack of improvisation – the transformation of ‘Wingwalker’ into a tender spoken-word break vastly heightens the excitement of its gurgling feedback-heavy reprise – but on-stage the bands taut, economic execution is every bit as dry, spacious and finely-tuned as Albini’s studio mastery suggests.
Still, Shellac’s live show is about much more than just a blistering set. Alongside his prolific work rate, it’s Albini’s ideological purism that has justified his saintly status amongst alternative rock’s liberal elite. Generous with time as well as talent, Shellac intersperse their set with a handful of black-humoured Q&A sessions, covering anything from the upcoming EU Referendum to the likelihood of them ever playing Plymouth – Bob: “Never!” But the greatest treat of all comes a little after the garbled screaming of set-closer ‘Spoke’ subsides. Having packed up their gear, Albini, Trainer and Weston head to the front to speak with fans, pose for pictures and hand out the odd splintered drumstick or two. As I make my exit, I’m reminded of one of Albini’s most telling earlier responses. “What’s your favourite film?” someone asks. “I don’t have one,” he quips. “I don’t rate films as an art form. It’s about being there.”