Fourteen years after the century turned and Steve Albini penned one of its best songs in ‘Prayer To God’, another seven after their last record Excellent Italian Greyhound, comes an album Shellac were in no rush to make – in hock to no label; touring just for the hell of it; hosting poker games at ATP, just for the hell of it; making a new album, just for the hell of it. Shellac have always been a band that operate within their own parameters, and on their fifth album in twenty years their sound remains uniquely, intuitively insular.
Albini’s guitar leads in on the title track’s no-nonsense riffing and ruminations on male group mentality – “Let’s leave this place directly/ And go where the females congregate/ Perhaps they’ll let us fuck them” Trainer answers the musing with a double crack on the snare, and another, before the song tilts into full-on rocker and violence breaks out at the midway point, “Suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by a group of strangers/And we resolve to fight them” That grim Shellac humour is as evident as ever, Albini’s vocal still matter-of-factly blunt as on ‘You Came In Me’ – “What did you think I was gonna do?/That’s why I’m fucking you”.
Bassist Bob Weston’s role is more pronounced on Dude Incredible. He takes control of ‘Compliant’, his lumpen bass groove overlain with the scratched echo of guitar as he details the rituals of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (“Stove/off/compliant”). The song inhabits one of those spacious chambers that Shellac construct so well, where neither string nor drum is struck without purpose. His bass carries the melody on ‘Riding Bikes’, measured and domineering, while it is the guitar that lays the two-note foundation.
On this latest record Shellac are as tightly wound as ever. Guitar, bass and drums are knotted into one another, an interlocking puzzle that seems impenetrable until someone tears loose a thread and the whole thing suddenly blows apart. It’s a paradoxical sound, economical and yet immense. ‘The People’s Microphone’ is a taut instrumental. Starting briskly, the tempo suddenly shifts, halts, and the song continues in faltering fashion, broken into compartments by the chip of Trainer’s hi-hat. The album’s second half takes a more conceptual slant with the loose theme of America’s founding fathers, surveyors who physically mapped the land. A crescendo of “Fuck the king!” caps the call-and-response barbershop style vocal that opens ‘All The Surveyors’. Albini’s ensuing statement that “Energy is mass multiplied by the speed of light squared” harks back to ‘The End Of Radio’ seven years previous (“This microphone turns sound into electricity”); Shellac don’t cloak their craft in mystery.
This music they create outside of their day jobs, this isn’t art. This is a piece of engineering assembled from building blocks, a utilitarian thing borne from mechanical tools and mathematical equations. In this respect, Albini, Weston and Trainer are master engineers. Weston takes the album’s final vocal on a snappy ‘Surveyor’ – three men at work detailing the work of earlier men – where the “accurate maps of the country” painstakingly assembled by the surveyors loops back to Weston’s earlier obsessive compulsive missive as the album grinds abruptly to a halt.
Shellac’s skill has always been in restraint, in creating tension within a song. Each instrument inhabits a singular space despite the understated intricacies of the arrangements, and their hold-release-repeat technique is more condensed here than on previous albums, trimmed of any excess into a lean, muscular half hour. With Dude Incredible, Shellac are a band with nothing to prove operating at the top of their game.