Shellac : To All Trains

Shellac To All Trains review

Few bands have had as deep an impact on my musical and personal development as Shellac. I was aware of them in the late ’90s, referenced semi-frequently (but not covered in any great depth) in the British music press as the Surfer Rosa/In Utero engineer’s band, but I didn’t hear them until the fall of 2000, when I met the man who remains my best friend to this day at a further education college in Leicester, England and he lent me their then-new album, 1000 Hurts. The album blew me away, eradicating my interest in bland British indie and replacing it with an enduring obsession with noise rock. If it hadn’t been for Shellac, noise rock and related genres would not play as big a part in my life as they do, I would not be the devoted show-goer that I am, and I almost certainly would not be writing for Treble.

So infrequent has Shellac’s album-releasing schedule been that the announcement of a new record has always generated unusually high amounts of anticipation. Their sixth album, To All Trains, has been no exception. This buzz was abruptly and brutally halted, though, when the tragic, unexpected death of frontman Steve Albini from a heart attack aged just 61 was announced a mere week-and-a-half before the album’s release. He was among the most respected recording engineers in music, and his death represents an irrecoverable loss to that profession. It also means that the noise rock (although the band themselves preferred the term “minimalist rock”) world has suffered almost as big a loss through the loss of Shellac, and that To All Trains has become the band’s parting work. While this obviously wasn’t the band’s intention, it is inevitable that the album will be discussed through the prism of Albini’s recent death and its status as Shellac’s swan song.

The good news is that it is a great album, and their best work of the past 20 years. The power trio of Albini, bassist Bob Weston, and drummer Todd Trainer tear through ten songs in just 28 minutes, making it the tightest, leanest album in their body of work. They eschew the lengthy experimental passages that occasionally dragged fourth album Excellent Italian Greyhound down, with opening track “WSOD” rivaling its 2014 follow-up Dude Incredible’s self-titled track in the record-opening-banger-with-catchy-guitar-riff stakes. “Girl From Outside” and the uptempo “Chick New Wave” continue the furious, frenetic pace. The latter would have ripped in a live setting, Trainer’s cymbal-pounding sounding particularly furious and effective here.

“Tattoos” and “Wednesday” are slower and more contemplative in tone. On the former, Albini sings accusingly to the track’s unspecified subject: “How many people did you kill … You got ghosts chasing you now.” The latter, meanwhile, is a downbeat tale of a formerly “hale and strong” fellow who ignominiously “blew out his brains / In the kitchen, Wednesday night.” Trainer’s drumming continues to serve as a powerful, propulsive force that underpins “Scrappers,” a song of which Shellac gave a spirited rendition at London’s Electric Ballroom in 2019. Albini’s guitar takes on an uncharacteristically melodic tone on “Days Are Dogs” and the Fall-referencing “How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man (cock & bull).” Weston takes on vocal duties on the latter song, his voice clear and melodic, leading one to wonder why Shellac didn’t utilize him as a singer more often so as to counter-balance Albini’s sardonic barks.

The short, speedy “Scabby the Rat,” about labor strikes, is another song that carries an urgent live energy and as such reinforces the loss that has results from the band’s sad ending. The album closes with “I Don’t Fear Hell,” a song whose title and lyrics will unavoidably sound to some listeners like foreshadowing. Trainer’s drums are characteristically high up in the mix, serving as a lasting memento of Albini’s engineering talents for making drums sound unusually powerful and loud. Albini sings over them softly but menacingly: “When this is over I’ll leap in my grave like the arms of a lover … If theres a hellIm gonna know everyone.” When I first heard the album, “I Don’t Fear Hell” initially seemed to lack the immediacy of To All Trains’ other songs, but its vocals and instrumentation carry a more subtle (but no less powerful) intensity to them than the rest of the record. Some ominous bass notes from Weston and jagged strumming from Albini bring the album to a haunting conclusion.

To All Trains serves as a near-perfect distillation of all the best parts of Shellac’s musicianship, with amazingly little filler across its ten tracks. It would be difficult to imagine a record being better conceived as a final collection of songs by which to be remembered. It is sad that the world will likely hear no more music from Shellac, but To All Trains is an admirable piece of work on which to bow out.

Label: Touch and Go

Year: 2024

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Shellac To All Trains review

Shellac : To All Trains

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