Concert review: Shellac at Ace of Cups
In woodworking, shellac is typically used to give completed pieces a polished, high-gloss finish. But Monday at Ace of Cups, Chicago rock trio Shellac spent just shy of 80 minutes peeling away any semblance of a showroom-ready veneer, deconstructing a series of scabbed, blunt-force cuts as menacing as Donald Trump lurking in the background of a town hall debate.
Guitarist/singer Steve Albini - best known to some for his work as an in-demand recording engineer - alternated between melodic passages, slicing metallic riffs and a strangled, barbaric scrawl where guitar notes hit like blows from a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. Not to be outdone, bandmate Bob Weston consistently conjured a thick, angry bass tone, aided by industrial-grade strings that looked as though they could pull double-duty hauling street cars up steep San Francisco hills.
After opening with a churlish "Canada," the three-piece ping-ponged between pummeling numbers ("Compliant," a prowling cut off the band's most recent long-player, Dude Incredible, which sounded much tougher here than on record) and deeply sardonic turns like "Prayer to God," where Albini delivered a surreal extended monologue to Jesus Christ, apologizing for falling out of touch ("I know we haven't kept up [but] didn't we have good times, Jesus, old pal?") and reminiscing about the basement hours the two once spent trading boasts about sexual conquests ("There's no pubic hair anymore").
Between songs, this sense of humor rocketed to the surface. When Albini tuned his guitar, Weston engaged the audience in an extended Q&A, offering up his favorite type of fish (salmon), the reason the band was late arriving at the venue (things just happen) and explaining why the musicians wouldn't be covering Cheap Trick's "Gonna Raise Hell" during their set ("We're really bad at covers and jamming"). Albini, in turn, proposed a series of new city slogans, including: "Columbus: It's on the way to wherever you're going" and "Columbus: The other Dayton." The bandmates also offered up a bit of local Shellac trivia, noting that Weston and drummer Todd Trainer actually met one another at the late, loved music venue Stache's.
Trainer, who didn't utter a single word throughout, adopted a similarly minimalist approach to his playing, which was largely primal and urgent, centered more on power than flash. Indeed, as "The End of Radio" opened, the drummer paced the stage, tapping out stuttered rhythms on a single snare he carried in his left arm.
On "All the Surveyors," Weston barked out bird calls - "Caw! Caw!" - while Albini laid down frayed, noodly riffs that felt like the sonic version of limbering up. The intro appeared to serve its purpose, too, with nary a hamstring pulled as the musicians shifted into a more urgent discharge near the song's midpoint. "Wingwalker," in contrast, unfolded in reverse, opening amid a feedback-drenched brawl and gradually unspooling until all that remained was Albini's voice. "As a man becomes obsessed, the rest of the world recedes," he said as the music did the same.