Shellac/Iona Fortune – Birmingham, The Asylum – 6 October 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Rich Hobson   
Thursday, 19 October 2017 04:00

In the world of noise rock, Steve Albini is the undisputed king. Frontman of Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, Albini’s contribution to noise is one of the single-most important in the genre’s history, not just as a writer but also on a production level. Instrumentally influential to everyone from KEN Mode to Whores, The Wildhearts to God Damn, Albini is a name synonymous with punk rock morals and noise rock abrasion. It’s fair to say then that his arrival in Birmingham with Shellac, his flagship band for the past 25 years, came with a high level of anticipation.


The Asylum provides the perfect environs for Shellac. Its converted factory surroundings (plonked on the edge of an industrial estate no less) not only reflecting the industrialised abrasive sound made by the bands but harkening to Birmingham’s ties to the origins of heavy metal. But tonight, the only metal that truly matters is that of the plectrums utilised so well by the band. Pulling together a diverse audience (from goth to punk, metalhead to whatever you’d call a Cardiacs fan), The Asylum show was all-but sold out in the build-up to the show, so it’s not surprising to see a sizable crowd gathered in time for the sole support act for the evening.


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Opening proceedings tonight is Iona Fortune, a Glaswegian artist armed with only a laptop and a collection of abrasive tones. Casting a lonely image on the stage, Iona Fortune creates harsh and dissonant soundscapes that could put to mind the likes of Zombi or Merzbow – certainly not bad company to keep in noise circles. The effectiveness of this is mixed however; while segments of the audience remain glued to the stage throughout her performance, more still use it as an opportunity to chat, hit the bar or linger in the outside smoking area, the lack of discernible songs proving too much of a challenge for those craving harsh punk noise.


But, ask and ye shall receive. Taking to the stage to yelps of excitement and approval from the crowd, Shellac aren’t here to win the audience over; they’re here to enjoy the spoils of war. A power trio in the truest sense of the word, Albini, Weston and Trainer are a force to be reckoned with, their sound and dynamic unique and iconic (and let’s face it, nobody sounds like Shellac – even when they try). Taking a no-nonsense, no-frills approach, the band appear with their battered instruments and lunge straight into the set, their strings sounding so hard and massive that you’d believe they’d been pulled from the Golden Gate Bridge.


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The chemistry between band and audience is key to the brilliance of the show, each song received with rapturous howls of delight and excitable bounces from the varied members in attendance. Only two songs into the set, the band start up the riff to the iconic ‘My Black Ass’, only for the song to be aborted part-way through as Todd struggles with an equipment issue. No problem; Bob Weston is on-hand to lead the crowd in a Q&A to fill the time, answering questions with the wry, sarcastic wit which has become synonymous with the band. Though the song isn’t attempted again, the chance to establish a true connection with the audience isn’t something the band pass up lightly and the atmosphere of the room quickly turns from reverent to jovial.


Joviality isn’t something you’d often associate with the music of Shellac, but the joy it inspires is undeniable. Between favourites like ‘Compliant’ and ‘Squirrel Song’, the band are able to lock into an irrepressible groove which shows them for what they are; an unstoppable machine. The reliability of their talent feels a million miles away from the ramshackle origins of punk, yet you can’t deny the sheer impressiveness of the scope of inspiration that Shellac (and Albini’s prior groups) have inspired.


Unsurprisingly, the on-stage patter of Steve Albini and Bob Weston is a strong highlight of the set. Whether it’s dismissively glossing over what bands they are listening to, (“ELO”, deadpans Weston – before reiterating the fact later on in the set) or expanding the spoken word outros of songs, the wit of Shellac hasn’t dulled a bit in the past two and a half decades. Greeting the crowd, Steve Albini earns a few dry chuckles as he tells the audience how great it is to be in the ‘beautiful city’. As Albini points out, though – Birmingham is also home to some of the world’s most influential music and coming directly from a major figure in the shape of music, that’s a pretty big compliment to be paid.


Playing for just over an hour and a quarter, Shellac pull out a setlist which covers the majority of the band’s most crowd-pleasing songs. ‘Dude Incredible’, ‘Steady as She Goes’ and ‘The End of Radio’ are all huge, the thunder of the band prompting many a grin across the room as the band hammer away. Individually, each member brings a unique tone to the performance. As the mouthpiece, Albini is the visual front of the band, snarling verses and prose in a manner for removed from the sloganeering and brainless chorus-dusting so prevalent in the genres he inhabits.


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Wearing a waist-strap for his guitar, Albini is literally firing from the hip as he unleashes a guitar tone which sounds akin to a blender eating a smaller blender. To his right, Bob Weston thunders away with a bass tone which sounds like funk dragged into the modern era to see the state of political and racial unrest 30 years on from its heyday. Pulling poses, addressing the crowd and providing the band’s heaviest elements, Weston is the bedrock from which the Shellac sound is formed. That just leaves drummer Todd Trainer; the hella-loud skin-smasher whose face contorts in delight and intensity throughout the performance, the closest the band has to a rock star as he twirls drumsticks and lays down the kind of beatdowns that’ll make you look for a badge. Together, they are Shellac, a pure force of nature, a band hard as nails with a sound that is a thousand times more vicious and righteously pure that anything that has come before or since.


With just over an hour of stagetime, Shellac lay down a masterclass in how to achieve brilliance without any pageantry. Three men, three instruments and a smattering of amps never sounded so good. Questioned on where the fancy amps that the band tour the US with are, Weston is straight – “At home. They sound exactly the same as these amps. *This* is Shellac”. Shellac aren’t a band that sound better on record. Nor are they a band that thrive in the live department. Shellac are Shellac everywhere they go, everywhere they play, sounding exactly how they do no matter what. Instrumental though they may be in noise rock and punk circles, ultimately Shellac are a rock n roll band. Though, perhaps more than that. They aren’t a rock n roll band… They’re the rock n roll band.


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