“Shellac Attacks!” – the headlines read for a previous review of the band…
So, how fitting to witness the notoriously intense, musically combative and hard-boiled Shellac perform a sold out gig in Berlin to open the Xtract Chicago Fest on the night of September 11th. The audience, who apparently also sensed the appropriateness of the occasion, waited patiently outside the Maria for an hour while the band belatedly made their soundcheck (they had been understandably uncertain as to whether or not to play at all).
While opening band, Berlin’s own Sexo Y Droga, made a valiant attempt to direct the sentiment of what was obviously a stunned and distracted crowd, their opening mantra of “Too much shit in this world”, somehow fell flat. Usually the Kings (and Queen!) of entropy, on this night the band seemed too young, inexperienced and totally over-whelmed to confront world crisis. Their usual stage antics – falling all over each other and rock-god-style posturing, just didn’t ring true – and the band looked as though they knew it themselves.
Shellac, however, was the band to see on a night like this, when it seemed that all spines had been knocked out of place, and everyone was waiting for answers. The band presented themselves like their namesake: impenetrable, armour-strong: they didn’t hesitate to confront messiness head on.
Steve Albini, greeted the timidly expectant audience with a statement that ripped through all pretence and got right to the point, “It’s Real!” He howled, then the trio – Albini on guitar, Bob Weston on bass and Todd Trainer on drums launched into a relentless, throbbing, exhaustive, immaculate set that lasted well over two hours.
Veterans of expressing anger, cynicism, moderated silliness and the human condition (“The subject matter of our songs is much more about rudimentary behaviour and universal truths existing within any culture…”), on this night Shellac also somehow became the (probably unwilling) spokesmen for their culture. In reponse, all energy appeared to be directed inward towards their instruments, rather than out towards the audience. The results were striking: songs stretched on and on and seemed to have the weight of lead, while the band all the while appeared unnaturally still, or at least restrained behind their instruments.
Only heavy-handed conceptualists with visions of releasing records with 50 pound pieces of pottery and 7 foot long styrofoam sailboats, could have built, in two hours, such an enduring monument to mammoth destruction using only the intangible of sound. They seemed to call upon their full range to express the inexpressible. Unfortunately, Dorfdisco not being previously much aware of Shellac’s work and our tape recorder having gone kaput, I cannot tell you precisely what songs they played.
Aside from Albini’s opening proclamation there was only one other reference to the day’s events. About 15 minutes into the show, Albini, who looked on the verge of tears, engaged in a free-form poetic description of the human carnage that must have rained over New York earlier that day. Terse, barely articulated references to broken teeth and bones and bits of skin he seemed hardly to have the strength to name himself. But Albini seemed to quickly realise that it was too early for any kind of psychological excavation, and he reverted back to the more immediately accessible guitar and predictable discomfort of Shellac’s established material.
By the end of the show I felt myself utterly shattered and buried. Everything ached; I certainly didn’t feel inspired or invigorated. Did Shellac go too far? No – it was the right approach, it was the only approach for them. There was nothing to celebrate that day. There was no reason to guzzle drinks and dance till dawn. Unlike in other times of crisis, when inebriation, entertainment or at least social distraction might be the best medicine, this moment in history was indisputably sobering.
After the show, the band silently and humbly packed up their instrument cases and unplugged their amps. While the audience stood or sat or wandered, equally dazed, into the bar. Only a fraction of the audience seemed to stick around long at all.
All aftershow interviews were cancelled. Backstage there was a T.V. on, tuned to CNN, of course. We hung around, not really knowing what to do, watching the same towers fall over and over again. Eventually, Albini came in looking pale, sweaty, human. “You guys just gonna’ stick around all night watching the news?” I heard him ask some of the entourage. “Well, we’re gonna go back to the hotel now and get some sleep.”
Nothing more to be said.