In 1994, Steve Albini’s post Big Black/Rapeman power trio burned through our speakers like thighs against the concrete of a hot Alpine Slide ride
For me At Action Park, the debut long player from Chicago trio Shellac is like a ripped bodybuilder flexing on the cover of a glossy magazine, her musculature cut and hyper-articulated beyond comprehension.
Or imagine machinists soldering together a complex series of metal components, just so. Or the idea of geometric exactitude, of erected, imposing scaffolding, of poetic or prose precision, of actors in a film performing in perfect sync with the emotion and intensity desired by director and screenwriter alike.
Whether or not this record was titled after the now-defunct Action Park – Vernon, New Jersey’s infamous, verifiably fatal water park – is a matter of some dispute. Unlike the failed amusement park, however, At Action Park is efficient and impeccably engineered. This first outing from singer/guitarist Steve Albini, bassist Bob Weston, and drummer Todd Trainer stung upon release in October 1994 and retains that same bruising power some 25 years later.
Albini, Weston, and Trainer were hardly new to the American rock semi-underground; between the three of them, they’d led or played crucial roles as part of legendary outfits to include Big Black, Rapeman, Brick Layer Cake, Rifle Sport and Volcano Suns. As Shellac, their abilities – Albini’s caustic, dry wit and serrated guitar leads, Weston’s taut-cable basslines, Trainer’s tricky, ticking thumps – would cohere as a collective zenith.
The concision is breathtaking, the restraint immense. Even At Action Park’s lone instrumental stuns: that’d be “Pull the Cup,” its flinty inaugural guitarwork spilling over into a terse dynamics tug-of-war where the center of gravity is never a closed case. While “Cup” is playing – dry, skeletal, flailing according to some over-practiced internal logic – Shellac sound like a machine pounding another machine into being.
Elsewhere, Albini’s lyricism matured from the cutting shock tactics to inside dad-joke chuckles and evocative storytelling even as his wail grew in intensity. That wail pairs nicely with the angry, zig-zag blitzkrieg of “Crow,” hits like a punch to the jaw at the hurdling near-hardcore center of “A Minute,” and reaps surprisingly affecting returns on the quarrelsome, abrupt “My Black Ass.” The trio weaves in slow-burn wind-ups that are almost post-rock graceful: think of Trainer’s light touch on the skins as “Il Porno Star” slinks towards fury or how reluctant “The Idea of North” seems to achieve liftoff.
Shellac weren’t ready, quite yet, to really toy with audiences’ perceivable aural reality; we’d have to wait for 1998’s Terraform and 2000’s 1000 Hurts for that. But on At Action Park we’d at least get “The Dog and Pony Show,” a four-minute, distended pique fit that’s impossible not to growl or scream along with, even if you’re only hearing it in your mind’s ear. The sizzle: a cache of titanic riffs, a string of disparate non-sequiters that somehow belonged together.
The steak: the band’s decision to play so hard in such a fierce, unified fashion that it sounds like the song could cut out – or break itself into pieces – at any given second. This tension makes the fiery four moments of “Show” feel like four hundred minutes, and makes it the cherry on top of one of the best debut LPs ever recorded.