To All Trains

To All Trains is a Shellac record. Expectedly, thankfully, obviously, unapologetically, unremarkably a Shellac record. A 180-gram Touch and Go Records—“made with 100% Recyclable Material which is PVC & Phthalates Free and uses 79% less CO₂ to produce”—Shellac record.

Of course, the crucial difference with this particular Shellac record, their sixth, is that frontman Steve Albini passed away from a heart attack at age 61, just 10 days before its release. It’s hard to wave away the tragic circumstances clouding it, especially when it concludes with a track called “I Don’t Fear Hell” where Albini delivers the smiling-through-clenched-teeth lines, “Something something something when this is over/Leap in my grave like the arms of a lover/And if there’s a heaven, I hope they’re havin’ fun, ’cause if there’s a hell I’m gonna know everyone.” Yet To All Trains is not an album overcast by death: It’s just one more example of how someone chose to live their life.

Leading Big Black, Rapeman and, finally, math-rock trio Shellac, Albini spent 40 years dedicated to a singular vision of underground rock music that was no frills, free of overdubs, constructed with analog tools and constantly nattering with guitar tone that started shrill and slowly evolved into Morricone metal. Eminently dependable, Shellac were the Honda Civic of alternative rock—modest, reliable, generally affordable. You knew the drill. There was a new album every so often, but never too often, whenever the mood struck prolific studio engineer Albini, prolific mastering engineer Bob Weston, and working drum instructor Todd Trainer.

Most of the things that made Shellac a great band in 2000 and 2007 and 2014 were already firmly bolted into place on their 1994 debut, At Action Park: the growl ’n’ skwonk, the bludgeoning repetition, the best-sounding drums around. They’re still here, too. Unlike similarly minimalism-minded rock bands like the Ramones, Motörhead, or AC/DC, you never had to worry that Shellac were going to fall prey to the creeping influence of modern production techniques or genre trends. Shellac songs would vacillate between rancorous and caustic (2000’s “Prayer to God“), hypnotic and caustic (2007’s “The End of Radio“) or funny and caustic (2014’s All the Surveyors”), but no one was ever going to file a complaint to the Better Business Bureau about the ingredients on the label.

To All Trains naturally walks the same path and, had circumstances permitted, would likely have been appreciated simply as little more than Shellac’s sixth excellent record. At a lean 28 minutes, it’s their shortest and most instantly rewardable—no instrumentals and none of the longform post-rock indulgences of 1998’s Terraform or 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound. Elements of the Minutemen were always lurking in Shellac’s music, but they seem especially pronounced in the groove-spiel of “Chick New Wave,” the sharp pauses of “Days Are Dogs” and the pro-labor screed “Scabby the Rat,” which plays like a funnier, less anxious version of Double Nickels on the Dime’s “West Germany.”

Like all good minimalism, the changes are small, so the highlights are subtle. The blown-out noise-rock coda of “WSOD” is outrageous, like a half-minute Brainbombs blast. “Days Are Dogs” is a cowbell-slamming Nazareth song for about five seconds. Albini’s guitar slowly distends like gelatin at the end of “I Don’t Fear Hell.” “Scrappers” stomps along as if Pussy Galore had bothered to learn how to play their instruments. Shellac’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, so it’s fun to imagine the Weston-sung “How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man (Cock & Bull)” as a belated clapback to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, who playfully dissed Albini on “50 Year Old Man” in 2008. Shellac’s photorealist recording strategy and silence-heavy compositions mean there are lots of places to admire things like cymbal decay and snare drum ring. In fact, Trainer is probably the album’s MVP, thanks to his artful, muscular, musical little drum solos across many of the open chasms.

To All Trains closes the book on the band and serves as a perfectly respectable epitaph; it’s exemplary, just like the five Shellac records that preceded it. The band’s legacy will blare on in noise-rock bands like Couch Slut, Chat Pile, Metz, KEN mode, Whores, and the Austerity Program. Weston will likely be mastering more of your favorite records, and it’s possible that some of your favorite new drummers will be trained by Trainer. Most importantly, Albini’s dogged, outspoken adherence to high-quality audio fidelity, equitable working conditions, and DIY grind will probably be an inspiration for some time, even as the very economics of “indie rock” are increasingly unsustainable for bands both new and veteran. This is a sad fuckin’ song, but it’s by no means finished.

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Shellac: To All Trains