Futurist and Terraform
Reviewed by John Brady
Thursday, July 30 1998, 2:51 PM
Futurist and Terraform are the ninth and tenth releases by Shellac, Steve Albini's musical follow-up to his noiserockfuck project Big Black. More experimental and abstract than usual, both albums represent a departure from the band's previous material.
Shellac recorded Futurist for the LA LA HUMAN STEPS dance company of Montreal. Sadly, the album isn't commercially available, but is instead being distributed through the network of friends and acquaintances associated with the band and HUMAN STEPS. So if you're not a friend or acquaintance listed on the LP's jacket, you're going to have to hustle a little to appropriate this piece of cultural capital. Perhaps you should start sending Mr. Albini those fan letters you've always been meaning to write.
Futurist presents Shellac at its most musically experimental and abstract. Albini and company have created wordless soundscapes of guitar noise and distortion out of remixes of its earliest recorded material such as its first full-length record, Action Park. It's ambient music with a decidedly sharp, menacing edge. On both sides of the album, these soundscapes are interrupted by interludes of electronic static, buzz and hum. These interludes further propel the album out of the realm of pop music and into that of the experimental.
You can hear echoes of this experimental direction on Terraform. This is especially true of the album's first cut, a long, introspective piece marked by the incessant rumbling of bass and drums broken intermittently by bursts of guitar noise. Shellac has combined the experimental elements with its usual sonic warping of the pop music form to compelling musical effect. In the end, it is not the music that I find problematic on either album. Rather, I find the way in which both records convey a sense of menace problematic. Shellac, and before it Big Black, were very adept at deploying an aesthetics of social decay and alienation. Through their music and lyrics on these and previous releases, Shellac has created a mood of estrangement, threat and danger and has used this mood to express an uneasiness with contemporary political and cultural affairs.
On Terraform, and to a lesser extent on Futurist, these aesthetics are again on display, but the critique of society implied by it is cryptic and unclear. What exactly is the problem here? Where should we look to find that which ails us? Terraform provides no clear answer. This ambiguity is what seems problematic to me, especially given the times in which we live -- times in which real social degeneration is taking place at an alarming rate, even as our economy is ostensibly booming. In such historical periods when the simultaneous accumulation of wealth and the production of poverty has shifted into overdrive, we need a more direct aesthetics of decline and estrangement, one less cryptic and circumspect about what is causing the social and political misery in our midst which gives birth to records like Futurist and Terraform.
Futurist was self-released by Shellac in 1997; Terraform was issued in 1998 by Touch and Go