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BIG BLACK (Buy CDs by this artist)
Lungs EP (Ruthless) 1982 (Touch and Go) 1992
Bulldozer EP (Ruthless/Fever) 1983 (Touch and Go) 1992
Racer-X EP (Homestead) 1984 (Touch and Go) 1992
Atomizer (Homestead) 1985 (Touch and Go) 1992
The Hammer Party (Homestead) 1986 (Touch and Go) 1992
Headache EP (Touch and Go) 1987
Songs About Fucking (Touch and Go) 1987
The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape (Homestead) 1987 (Touch and Go) 1992
Pigpile (Touch and Go) 1992
Manipulator EP (Touch and Go) 1989
Factory Smog Is a Sign of Progress EP (Touch and Go) 1990
Budd EP (Touch and Go) 1988
Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (Touch and Go) 1989
Live in Tokyo (Japan. NUX Organization) 1994
Shellac at Action Park (Touch and Go) 1994
The Futurist (self-released) 1997
Terraform (Touch and Go) 1998
1000 Hurts (Touch and Go) 2000

Steve Albini has had a genuine impact on the rock cosmos. In the '80s, as leader of Big Black and Rapeman, the Chicago singer/guitarist ushered in an era of malevolent detachment; as an extraordinarily prolific producer (or, as he insists on putting it, "recorder" or "engineer") of bands as varied as Jesus Lizard, the Pixies, Nirvana, Wedding Present, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, PJ Harvey, Cheap Trick, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and the Fleshtones (plus countless others less well known), he's honed a clean-but-assaultive aesthetic that revolutionized guitar rock; as self-appointed arbiter of indie morals, he's reaffirmed ascetic values with a verve rarely seen outside Amish country. In short, Steve Albini is not out to win any popularity contests — and he's perfectly willing to assail those who would curry his favor by nominating him in one.

"The only good policeman is a dead one/The only good laws aren't enforced/I've never hung a darkie but I've fed one/I've never seen an Indian on a horse." With these gentle words, the acerbic fanzine writer began his extremely serious adventures in the rock'n'roll skin trade. Big Black made music that was grating, angular, humorless and very intelligent — sort of a cross between Gang of Four, PiL and the Great Crusades (not a band). Albini's self-righteousness sometimes causes him to be as much unaccommodating as uncompromising, but his bile is generally well-directed, and he's immune to corruption, except from within. All of his records are challenging and rewarding.

Lungs is at once the most homegrown and overwrought Big Black release. Over a skeletal art-funk background, Albini creates bleak, tough images of recessioned industrial America. While "I Can Be Killed" is almost laughable in its delusionary self-importance, "Steelworker" is intensely muscular. Bulldozer goes for a chunkier sound and more violent imagery. The recording quality and playing are more sophisticated, making it less alluring than the spartan Lungs. "Cables" is about voyeurs at a slaughterhouse; "The Pigeon Kill" is about poisoning birds; "Seth" is about a dog trained to attack black people. Overambitious, but sincere and scary. (A limited number of copies of Bulldozer were packaged in a sheet metal sleeve, with the band's name etched in acid.) The CD of The Hammer Party, which on vinyl is simply a combined reissue of the first two EPs, adds the third, Racer-X.

The Big Black catalogue was consolidated and reissued in late '92, augmented by the release of Pigpile, a live album recorded in London during the quartet's 1987 farewell tour. As invigorating as the sharp-edged music on Pigpile is, Albini's liner notes, explaining the band's operative principles and detailing the set's twelve songs, are just as aggressive and intense.

Racer-X is less obsessively cranky than the first two records (a positive development). The basic elements remain: one-riff industrial funk grooves, coarse vocals, jagged guitar played with steel picks. But this EP fills out the sound without sacrificing any of its amateur appeal. The musicians, while skilled technicians all, keep the sound raw. And if Albini is still something of a cartoon curmudgeon in his boasts about being "The Ugly American," he at least includes a James Brown cover and a tribute to Speed Racer's cooler brother. Not as idiosyncratically brilliant as Lungs, but fine stuff nonetheless.

Atomizer comes thundering out of the starting gate like a wounded rhino, charging around madly with awesome, claustrophobic rock power. Albini leads his troupe through such angry slices of niho-philosophy, depravity and arson as "Big Money," "Stinking Drunk," "Fists of Love," "Jordan, Minnesota," "Kerosene" and "Bazooka Joe" (for which the liner notes note "part of the drum track is an M1 carbine being fired in a field exercise by a guy named Joe"). A magnificently rugged record and a major sourcebook for countless bands to come.

As a sticker prudently warns, Headache is nowhere near as good as Atomizer. With the exception of the slow-to-fast chugger "Ready Men," nothing approaches the same level of excellence. Although Headache is the weakest Big Black LP or EP, it will forever be remembered for its original (fortunately?) limited edition sleeve: the most gruesome, disgusting photo imaginable, an accident victim's head so grotesque the record had to be sold with a covering black jacket.

The CD-only Rich Man's Eight Track Tape (ha-ha) is a 16-track compilation of Atomizer (minus "Strange Things"), all of Headache and both sides of the "Heartbeat"/"Things to Do Today" single.

As Big Black was splitting up, they released their finest work: a second actual LP, Songs About Fucking. As if to go out kicking, screaming, howling and biting, it's their most raging, abrasive, pulverizing record, with only an excellent and ironic guitar take of Kraftwerk's "The Model" providing any relief. Albini's screeched vocals are so low in the mix they're just another instrument. Obsessing as usual on the excessive and bizarre side of human life, his stories remain mini horror movies set to the punishing, scathing guitar attack. Lyrically and aurally like Atomizer, it's liable to alter your perceptions. (The CD and cassette add Big Black's cover of Cheap Trick's "He's a Whore," which was first released as a 45, complete with parodic sleeve photo.)

Although the main reason Big Black split was because guitarist Santiago Durango enrolled in law school, he's since found the time to record two EPs as Arsenal, assisted on the second by Naked Raygun's Pierre Kezdy. (Durango was in Raygun's original lineup, prior to Kezdy's arrival.) In 1991, the rock'n'roll lawyer cropped up as Cynthia Plastercaster's attorney in her phallic property litigation with Herb Cohen.

Manipulator is too experimental, as if Durango hadn't decided what sort of music he wanted to make. "Little Hitlers" could be a Big Black outtake, but the rest sounds like an afternoon of self-indulgent knob twisting. The vocals, delivered in a barely discernible Darth Vader growl and deliberately hidden behind the instruments, make Albini's anti-singer mixes sound like a U2 album.

Factory Smog is much better. Including songs originally done by the legendary Strike Under and Trial by Fire (Kezdy's two old bands), this EP carries on Big Black's harsh wallop, with big-fuzzed instrumental passages that also bring to mind Breaking Circus. While the vocals are still nowhere near the front of the mix, the harrowing riffs make for real drama. (One CD contains both EPs.)

Following Big Black, in addition to producing countless records (usually without taking sleeve credit), Albini formed the short-lived Rapeman and discovered entire new vistas of aural and conceptual antagonism that have proven astonishingly influential. (The steel-edged thrash trio's crudely provocative name, borrowed from a Japanese comic character, contributed to the brevity of its existence.) Three of the four songs on the Budd 12-inch were recorded live and loose, an unfocused batch of impressive shards that doesn't make a convincing introduction to the group. Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (which, like Budd, has a nifty die-cut cover) fits Albini's distinctive meltdown guitar and shriek vocals into rough song forms outlined by the ex-Scratch Acid rhythm section of David Wm. Sims (bass) and Rey Washam (drums). Whether paraphrasing Sonic Youth ("Kim Gordon's Panties"), dismantling '70s rock ("Radar Love Lizard"), slowly discussing sex scenarios ("Trouser Minnow") or revving up ambiguously intended furiosities ("Hated Chinee"), Rapeman spits out sparks with the conviction of Albini's acerbic intelligence. (Both records are on a single CD.)

Albini ended a long performing hiatus in 1993 with Shellac, formed with bassist Bob Weston (ex-Volcano Suns) and drummer Todd Trainer (formerly of Breaking Circus and Rifle Sport, but still the captain of his own Brick Layer Cake). The group debuted with a pair of 7-inch singles released in late '93 and then released a full album the following year. Shellac essentially picks up where Rapeman left off, turning confrontational in the very first line of Shellac at Action Park's opener, "My Black Ass," which summarizes Albini's attitude as an artist with remarkable precision: "You're gonna eat what I fix / I hope you choke on it." While offering nothing to ease the ingestion process, the three members of Shellac (all of whom earn their livings as recording engineers) keep the atmosphere remarkably pristine, so much so that each note, each drumbeat of the brittle instrumental "Pull the Cup" seems to hang in mid-air for eons. Purely in terms of sonics, At Action Park is less conventional than anything any of the members have been involved with in the past — its pulsing frequencies have more in common with the machine shop than the rock machine — but that doesn't mean you won't relish the ear canal damage it's likely to provoke.

Terraform puts At Action Park's opening lyrical dare into practice with the 12-minute monotony of "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are." There are occasional flourishes in this marathon cut, but none worth the wait. Terraform's greatest moment, and maybe Shellac's best overall, is the closing "Copper," in which Albini — at a lyrical peak — equates copper to an ugly duckling, lamenting that the metal "will never be gold." Under two minutes long and astonishingly catchy, it's essentially pop punk. Between these bookends are songs that stick close to form — ultra-sharp riffs (played with metal picks, of course), Weston's pulsing bass lines and Trainer's patented drop-beat poundings — like "Mouthpiece," "Canada" and "Disgrace." There's only one real miss on Terraform, but unfortunately it takes up roughly a quarter of the running time.

Continuing to make their album openers quality barometers, Shellac returned to form with 1000 Hurts. "Prayer to God" is Albini at his most convincingly nasty, beginning, "To the one true God above, here is my prayer / Not the first you've heard, but the first I wrote." What does he want, more Travis Bean guitars? More like God to deal with an anonymous couple the way He did Sodom and Gomorrah. "Him just fucking kill him / I don't care if it hurts / Yes I do / I want it to," Albini rages before shifting into pained screams of "Just fucking kill him." On a less-inflamed note, "Shoe Song" is a melancholy number, reminiscent of the muted tone of Slint's Spiderland, croaked by Weston. The swerving "New Number Order" is a dud, but "Ghosts" is tight and pristine. 1000 Hurts ends with "Watch Song," Albini in schoolyard bully mode. "Hey man, I wanna have a fight with you," he snarls. Sharp guitar licks offer sneering retorts, the two scrumming for control before palm mutes and Trainer's toms wrap things in a nice little tourniquet. Not quite as consistent as At Action Park, 1000 Hurts still packs a mean wallop that generally finds its mark.

[John Leland/Ira Robbins/Jack Rabid/David Sprague/Yancey Strickler]
   See also Brick Layer Cake, Crush, Sr., Kustomized, Naked Raygun, Pegboy, Rachel's