After a brief fling as Blatent Dissent, a fairly conventional mid-’80s punk band at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, the members of Tar moved to Chicago and adopted a thicker, harder, more textured sound. A number of the band’s discs were engineered by Steve Albini or Iain Burgess, sonic architects of the Chicago post-punk fringe, and they capture the no-frills interplay of guitarists John Mohr and Mark Zablocki and the drill-press precision of drummer Mike Greenlees and bassist Tim Mescher (later replaced by Mike Zaluckyj).
The quartet is still working through its record collection on Handsome; “Same” quotes the Sex Pistols, “Seam” rewires Wire and “Downtime” regurgitates Iggy Pop’s vocal mannerisms. But Tar also begins threading subversive melodies through a thick fabric of dissonance created by its custom-made aluminum guitars, particularly on the vicious tug and pull of “Mel’s.”
Roundhouse is a more fully realized effort, with guitars that methodically churn like threshers through a wheat field, underpinned by coldly relentless lunge-and-lurch rhythms. It’s the most industrial-sounding of Tar’s albums, and substantially reminiscent of then-labelmates Helmet. Mohr’s monotonal vocals are effectively buried, just another layer in the band’s ominous sonic grid.
Mohr begins to develop a vocal personality on Jackson, almost in spite of the bleak subject matter. “I don’t understand how the hands of progress could be so cold,” he wails on “Trauma.” A refined sense of dynamics and tempo is also evident: “Walking the King” starts at a trot and than abruptly dissolves into a crawl. “On a Transfer” glides and gallops on a bed of overdriven guitars; “Dark Mark” builds relentlessly to a double-time finale.
With two live cuts and an alternate version of the 1992 single “Teetering” augmenting four new studio songs, Clincher introduces more pronounced melodies, particularly on “Lady Steps,” which sounds like a Zuma-era Neil Young outtake. Toast expands the melodic terrain and displays even more confident vocals. The band’s wry humor also emerges, most prominently on “Satritis,” which posits that it’s better to make fun of guitar solos than to actually play them. Indeed, Mohr and Zablocki establish a twin-guitar vocabulary so reliant on tension-building rhythms and textures that individual expressions of technique would be superfluous.
Over and Out, Tar’s best and most varied album, is the aptly titled finale — a rare instance in which a band bows out before the corpse starts to decompose. The old power is there on “Known Anomalies” and “Time to Strike,” while “Welk” shapes up as the band’s hookiest song and “Q.V.C.,” with cello-like e-bow guitar, sustains a contemplative mood. The emotional centerpiece is the tumultuous “Building Taj Mahal,” which ruminates on a band’s last stand: “I am familiar with the concept of filler,” sings Mohr, but adds, “This one is special.” He’ll get no argument here.