“The most bittersweet listening experience of the year cuts close to the bone.” Shellac's To All Trains is Steve Albini's epitaph, and it's as thrillingly intense, darkly amusing and pleasingly unsentimental as expected

To All Trains, Shellac's first album in 10 years, is a worthy tribute to the force-of-nature that was Steve Albini

(Image: © Touch and Go)

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Announcing To All Trains, their sixth studio album, back in March, Shellac issued some accompanying notes. "This record will have no formal promotion," the band stated. "There will be no advertisements, no press or radio promotion, no e-promotion, no promotional or review copies, no promotional gimmick items, and otherwise no free lunch."

You can almost hear Steve Albini laughing dryly to himself as he typed those words.

Shockingly, after a ten year wait for a new album from the revered Chicago noise-rock trio, To All Trains pulls into the station just 10 days after the death, aged 61, of their iconoclastic vocalist/guitarist, a man who did as much as anyone to carve out a set of unyielding, uncompromising moral principles for DIY underground rock, and more than most to actually live by such tenets. The most bittersweet listening experience of the year cuts close to the bone at times. On the grinding, typically unsentimental I Don't Fear Hell, the last song on the album, and quite possibly the last song we'll ever hear Albini sing, he drawls "And when this is over, I'll leap in my grave like the arms of a lover", then follows up with the gleeful exultation, "If there's a heaven, I hope they're having fun, 'cos if there's a hell I'm gonna know everyone!

It's ridiculous, of course, to impart any kind of posthumous resonance to lyrics written years before last week's tragic news, so let's stick to cold, hard facts. Recorded "over a bunch of long weekends in November 2017; October 2019; September 2021; and March 2022", the follow-up to 2014's Dude Incredible is typically fat-free: 10 songs in total, with a total running time of 28 minutes and 13 seconds. At times the rhythmic interplay between Albini, bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer resembles Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham at their most telepathic and locked-in: at times, principally on Scrappers, these three fastidious studio nerds sound like they just want to cut loose and boogie like ZZ Top circa Tres Hombres.

There are moments of pure silliness here - "You are kicking ass on the song... High five!" Albini and Weston sing in tandem on Girl From Outside, more Borat than Nietzsche - and moments of grave, tar-black reportage, not least on Wednesday, which concludes with the lines, "So, remember him, hale and strong, would never run from a fight, and not the sad thing that blew out his brains in the kitchen, Wednesday night." The perky, jerkingly-groovy Scabby The Rat is a heart-warming love letter to a king-sized inflatable rodent symbol of trade union resistance in Chicago and beyond, while the almost tender How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man (cock & bull) is - we presume - named in oblique tribute to another great post-punk contrarian, Mark E. Smith, referencing as it does The Fall's How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man, but with added er, cock and bull. As one might expect, there are no easy rides here, zero pandering, only endlessly electrifying jolts of serrated, singular noise, with riffs and beats that slot together like some great clanking rusting-but-trusted industrial machinery. It's probably best not to know exactly what's going through Albini's head at times - "These days are all dogs, distracted by their assholes, the smell of rotting carcasses warmed by the sun" anyone? - but as ever, Shellac are never less than compelling throughout, never less than a bleakly beautiful good time.

“Breaking up is an idea that’s occurred to far too few bands. Sometimes the wrong ones,” Albini wrote in posthumous tribute to his first notable band, Big Black. Shellac, unfortunately, have had their dissolution forced upon them by cruel fate, but the trio leave behind an unimpeachable legacy, and no weak moments whatsoever. Rest easy Thin White Dick, you taught us well, shot straight, and very rarely missed. Exeunt. 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.