Graded on a Curve:
Big Black,
Atomizer

File under: Music to Hurt Things To. These guys make me think of that line from Fight Club. You know, the one that goes, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.”

I was never much of a Big Black fan for a couple of reasons. For one, they never made me chuckle the way their noise rock brethren in Cows and Killdozer did. For another, I had the hardest time working up any enthusiasm for their drum machine-driven proto-industrial sound.

But time has softened me up to the very unlovable Steve Albini and Company. Sure he’s an awful snot with a jaundiced worldview and a mean word for just about everybody, but you can’t deny he lacks vision. He wanted to make a horrible pummeling caterwaul and accompany it with lots of transgressive lyrics based on stories he read in the newspaper or vomited up from his revolting imagination, and the results can be heard to nauseating effect on Big Black’s 1986 debut LP Atomizer.

The LP credits Albini (guitar, vocals, drum machine programming), Santiago Durango (guitar), Dave Riley (bass) and Roland, who happens to be the drum machine and who I can only presume didn’t get paid. And this despite the fact that on some songs Roland should get top billing.

But on other cuts it’s easy to forget poor Roland because the boys make such an ungodly noise with their guitars, thanks to their use of metal guitar picks notched with sheet metal clips. They achieve a variety of startling and discordant effects via this simple trick; the tinny Chinese din of “Passing Complexion” (think world music as played by guys who never got out of Evanston, Illinois) will give you a good idea of the sonic possibilities. Sonic Youth have nothing on this bunch.

Like Killdozer’s Michael Gerald, Albini is a proud purveyor of a literary genre that can only be called Midwestern Gothic. Atomizer is littered with songs about killers (“Bazooka Joe”), a town full of child-abusing sex perverts (“Jordan, Minnesota”), and a frustrated small-town guy whose idea of passing time involves setting himself on fire (“Kerosene”). But unlike Gerald (who is by far the better storyteller), Albini doesn’t evince much of a sense of humor. Don’t get me wrong; I suspect he thinks the things he sings about are funny, but his sense of humor–we’re talking here about the guy who would go on to call his next band Rapeman–is blacker than your average hearse.

Roland, unsurprisingly, adds a cold and inhuman element to the sound, and if you think machines can’t be both sentient and brutal you should think again. People accused early Wire–who were a huge influence on Albini–of a frightening detachment achieved through frigid sonics, but they’re mere pikers compared to Big Black, who have all the heart of your average car crusher.

But haven’t you ever met a car crusher you fell in love with? The big, bad drum machine that opens “Bad Houses” is just a precursor to a bigger noise to come; Albini does a lot of indecipherable muttering while the guitars play a melody that might be lovely were it not so sheathed in ugly feedback. “Fists of Love” (think spousal abuse) is all shrieking and distortion-drenched guitars set to a relentless beat. “Stinking Drunk” features lots of nerve-fraying ax shred, proceeds at an inebriated gallop, and features some minimalist lyrics about a scary guy who thinks it’s about time he tied one on. The chorus is a merry, “Get drunk, get drunk, get drunk!”

LP opener “Jordan, Minnesota” is the eeriest song on the LP; it comes complete with an endless succession of disorienting stops and starts, and when Albini isn’t saying frightening things about five-year-olds he’s letting out terrifying yips, pants, and squeals. “Strange Things” boasts a machine-tooled synapse-destroying drone; its only discernible lyrics are frequent group shouts of “Hey!” Take the Ramones, wring every last ounce of gabba gabba cute out of ‘em, and you would have this baby.

“Big Money” is another gallop boasting a variety of startling guitar effects; Albini lurks in the background, saying things that would probably give me the willies if I could understand him. “Kerosene” is the LP’s standout track, a positively brilliant song that sets some appalling lyrics about stagnating in a rural backwater against a mesmerizing bass line and some shimmering guitars that drone with a deranged bagpipe roar. “Never anything to do in this town,” whines Albini. “Probably learn to die in this town,” he gripes. Given such circumstances, what’s the answer? Self-Immolation! “Kerosene” really does tickle my funny bone, and its instrumental breakdown is one of the most horribly beautiful things I’ve heard my whole life.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Suffice it to say there isn’t a single cut on Atomizer that doesn’t meet producer extraordinaire Albini’s notoriously perfectionistic standards, and there isn’t a single cut that won’t make you wonder whether human progress isn’t a Big Lie. And whether human beings aren’t just as base, stupid, and ugly as your great satirists and pessimists say they are.

I’ve grown to love Atomizer, and you could grow to love it too. But I can only listen to it in limited doses and I’m careful to always follow it with a bracing dose of Joan Baez. She loves people, rarely sings songs about entire towns committing child sex abuse, and never sings to a chainsaw beat.

Atomizer, on the other hand, will make you think bad thoughts, and I wouldn’t exactly call its brutalism cathartic.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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