Photo: Touch and Go Records

Steve Albini’s Black Swan Song: Shellac’s ‘To All Trains’

Shellac’s To All Trains is as compelling as anything they ever produced and a swan song. In Steve Albini’s case, the swan must surely be big, angry, and black.

To All Trains
Touch and Go
17 May 2024

Steve Albini is dead. He calls out to us in his signature evil little whine on the track “I Don’t Fear Hell”. The song serves as the epilogue at the end of To All Trains, the album that became the final work of Albini and his band Shellac. He tells us simply that he does not fear hell, and when you hear him mutter this into your ear, you might feel a tingle up your spine, knowing that this voice comes to you now from beyond the grave. Then, in true Albini fashion, through the darkness comes an equally fearless, almost anticlimactic, humor. He continues the line and tells you that hell’s baseball team is “undefeated”. 

If you somehow don’t know who Steve Albini is, this is the end of the story. If this is true, feel free to backtrack and come back when you’re done researching his catalog of recording engineering work, which in many ways reads like a history of alternative rock from its inception (Nirvana, Pixies, Cloud Nothings, the list is far too long to bother reciting) right up to his untimely death by heart attack in May 2024, hauntingly, the same month that this album was set for to be released. 

So, what is Shellac? On one level, it’s a particular guitar sound that Albini followed rather consistently with every Shellac release since 1992’s masterwork debut, At Action Park. Shellac, at least on some level, is the sound of a guitar mimicking the sounds of splintering metal. It’s the sound of tectonic plates scraping on other tectonic plates. Shellac is self-described as a “minimalist rock trio”. What is a minimalist rock trio? What does this trio do? The band pedal in a certain kind of groove, a methodical, almost caveman-like groove created by Bob Weston’s angular, metallic bass playing and the crack of Todd Trainers’ massive sounding drums. They sound like they are trying to mimic the footsteps of giants. What is Shellac? What is the result of Steve Albini’s musical project? 

Before there was Shellac, or Nirvana, or alternative rock for that matter, before Albini was anybody, there was Big Black. Albini’s first notable band continues to serve as a high watermark for punk rock antagonism. Roughly five years after punk rocks proper inceptions, just five years after the Sex Pistols were able to shock the world with the word “Anarchy” and a bit of public spitting, came Big Black with albums like Atomizer and Songs About Fucking that indeed sported songs about fucking, as well as child rapists, gleeful suicide, and BDSM.

Their brand of “punk rock” sounded more like a bastardization of industrial music and thrash metal and made a band like the Ramones sound like classic rock with the guitar solos taken out. For years, punk seemed to flirt with pushing buttons; Big Black took out hammers and smashed the consul with bored expressions on their faces. Interviews with Steve Albini around this time were filthy (so filthy I won’t quote them here), filled with rather inexcusable, edge-lord (at best) statements, not to mention a side project called Rapeman. All of this would have gotten him canceled in 2024 in about two seconds, but back then, it all simply solidified Albini as a card-carrying member of a certain kind of Gen-X pop nihilism that was in vogue.    

While some aspects of his past taboo pushing won’t be and probably shouldn’t be written off in this year of our lord, for those who look a little closer, it is clear that for all the bile being spouted, as far as Albini’s music projects were concerned, there was almost always a “Devo factor” bubbling beneath the surface. Yes, Devo, the costume-wearing Akron, Ohio band that did “Whip It”. The comparison is apt not only because of the mechanical sound of both bands but also because both shared the idea that bands were just that: ideas. It wasn’t all “just trolling”.

At times, he was exercising real personal demons, but more often than not, it seemed he was playing a character. Steve Albini was a prankster and, deep down, seemed to preserve the inner child within him, a Mad magazine-reading, nose-picking nerd who wanted to set off fireworks in the neighbor’s mailbox just because it made a loud “boom!” He was, of course, not a raging rapist, and anyone who saw a picture of the scrawny, four-eyed geek knew he probably couldn’t win an arm wrestling match, let alone brutally murder someone. That was also true of countless other scarier-looking bands of the time, who talked a big game and fortified an off-putting atmosphere. By contrast, Albini was fully prepared to be seen for what he was: a shrimp; the thing is, this nerdy shrimp could make a louder, scarier sound than any muscle head with nails on his jacket. 

So, what is Shellac? Shellac are the complete distillation of Steve Albini’s vision of a rock band, one that was both as heavy sounding and vulgar as any metal band but could also keep things in perspective with a bit of underlying humor. By the time Shellac were born, and especially by the time of To All Trains, Albini was far away from being seen as a dangerous transgressor.

After some large-scale engineering jobs, he became the cool uncle of alternative rock. His lectures on his recording process drew the attention of thousands. He described himself as a simple fixer of problems, more like a plumber than an artist. Bands would come from all over the world to his studio in Chicago to get that Steve Albini stamp on their album, showing they could make something with the guy who worked with Kurt Cobain, Kim Deal, Jimmy Page, and countless others. He played professional poker and was great at it. He talked about guitar pedals while wearing stilts. 

In turn, he also eventually grew up enough to see that aggressive taboo pushing does not happen in a vacuum, that in a post-Trump America, some context to his past and even distancing of himself from a certain kind of loner “edge lord” was necessary. He expressed regret in a post on Twitter/X on 21 October 2021. “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful, and I regret them.” He went on further in another post that he “expected no grace” that he and others of his generation have not been “held to task” for a “coarsening society”. 

One could say that his coming out as a rather mild-mannered guy and his undeniable celebrity status by the time of To All Trains, in turn, softened the edges of Shellac. In some ways, it can be more challenging for a knowing listener in 2024 to let Albini fully disappear into the role of “Tattoos” threatening narrator or into the guise of the main character of the track “Days Are Dogs”, where he promises violence and boasts of his many “concubines”. Naturally, the key word here is character, and of course, most folks (myself included) don’t want to listen to a guy who truly believes in some of the evil things spouted in this album. In many ways, the jig is up, and that’s okay. It’s all fiction, and of course it is. What’s left? Quite a lot.

There is still darkness to spew and jokes to be told (often about baseball). Steve Albini is your host by the fireside, telling ghost stories. “What we got back you couldn’t fit in your hat and was hardly fit to bury” is what he growls into your ear, telling of grim brawlers and their sad suicides on one of the strongest tracks on the record, “Wednesday”. Like many on the album, the song feels like a rock groove pounded and shaped into a funeral dirge. Knowing that what we’re hearing are some of the final recordings of Albini’s voice in the context of sad ends and gory deaths unavoidably adds an extra layer of prescience, perhaps reminiscent of David Bowie‘s final album, Black Star. Unlike Black Star, To All Trains was not knowingly ventured upon by Shellac as some final utterance. Death and violence had always been a part of Shellac’s lyrics. Still, right up to that ominous final track on the album where Albini shouts about not fearing hell, telling us that he will know everyone there, it can be hard not to indulge in the creepy feeling that the person who has been telling you these ghost stories was himself a ghost the whole time. 

As far as opening tracks that set the atmosphere, Shellac have always been gifted. There was At Action Parks “My Black Ass”, Terraformer’s one-of-a-kind 12-minute, minimalist wonder “Didn’t We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are” (mouth full), and their most notorious and celebrated song, “Prayer to God” which kicks off 1000 Hurts. To All Trains continues this tradition with “WSOD”, which hinges around a scratchy, flamenco-from-hell-style riff that somehow, despite its strangeness, undeniably gets stuck in the listener’s head. It’s an example of the eclectic guitar playing that Steve Albini incorporates quite often, and it always keeps Shellac from being pinned with an easy genre tag like punk or metal. Shellac are something else. Something other.

Their chosen style of broken, almost Southern gothic, cowboy-style riffage continues here, especially on intense tracks like “Girl From Outside”. The guitar calls to mind Fist Full of Dollars era Ennio Morricone, but they never sound too on the nose or referential. On this track, Steve yells, “You are kicking ass on this song”, and you can’t help but feel he is addressing his bandmates (they are indeed kicking ass on this song).

The more obviously tongue-in-cheek, often gendered, humor that could be found on songs like the title track of their previous record Dude Incredible is pushed further here on songs like “Chick New Wave”, Shellac’s version of a “fast little punk number”. It could easily be written off as a little too silly, even rather tone-deaf, being a diatribe from a female narrator about how they are “through with music from dudes”. It’s a jab, but a loving one, if anything, one of support toward the Riot Grrrl legacy while also not being afraid to throw in what feels like a healthy dose of sarcasm aimed at a certain kind of lazy, pop feminism. 

A lack of novelty inevitably creeps in at a certain point in a band’s career. Some listeners may hope for more expansive or experimental approaches to songwriting or image. No one expected Shellac to reinvent their wheel; the band would never have a Kid A moment. Steve Albini’s passion for simple, uncomplicated efficiency and consistency with recording seemed to also carry over into his own art making. To All Trains feels like a group showing up, punching in, doing the good work, getting the job done, and then punching out for a night at the bar. That may sound like an insult, but from what is known about Albini, it seems doubtful that he or his band would take it as one.

Regardless of Steve Albini’s mythic status, the guy always clung to a working-class ethos about putting in the work and being allergic to pretension and self-importance. There is a lot of integrity here, a lot of purpose, and, most notably, a lot that smacks you in the face and rocks. Albini didn’t know this would be his last music offering to his fans. If he had known, it seems unlikely that his philosophy would have allowed him to make this into some performative event for mass consumption. As far as Shellac were concerned, this was just another day at the office. What is left is as straightforward and compelling as anything they ever produced, a thing that just so happens to stand as a swansong, and perhaps in Albini’s case, the swan must surely be big, angry, and black. 

RATING 7 / 10