Monday, January 4, 2016

30 Years Later: Big Black - 'Atomizer'

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 11:19 AM

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Atomizer
was released five years after Big Black formed and a little more than a year before the band broke up; it was their first full-length album, released after a series of EPs that saw the band rapidly evolving their sound from raw post-hardcore. On Atomizer, Big Black had morphed into an entirely unique amalgam of tightly wound anger, bristling guitars, bruising punk forcefulness, and synthetic/industrial nihilism. If it was the only album the band had released, it doubtlessly would have gone down as an unparalleled and completely singular masterpiece, however, the fact that the band further upped the ante on 1987's Songs About Fucking album meant that Atomizer has been a lauded, if somewhat underappreciated work.

As the first release with the band's best lineup – Steve Albini, Santiago Durango, and Dave Riley – Atomizer benefitted as much from Albini's singleminded devotion to punk ethics and musical forward motion as it did from Riley's low-end rhythmic experiments and the brutalist interplay of Albini and Durango's razor-wire guitars. While it can often sound like a spiked garbage can lid repeatedly and relentlessly bashing you on the face, Atomizer is an album rich with dynamics, both melodic and percussive. (It always helps that a drum machine does what you tell it to do, rather than what it wants to do.) Those dynamics are even more pronounced on the recent remastered version of the album, which manages to carve out the midrange even more deeply, leaving the chaos on either side of the sonic spectrum to define its sound.

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And then there are Albini's lyrics, which had now been sharpened to as fine a point as one could expect from a 23-year-old who wanted to write about sex crimes against children ("Jordan, Minnesota"), self-immolation due to boredom ("Kerosene"), and race dynamics ("Passing Complexion"). His lack of subtletly here is a feature, not a bug, perfectly capturing a weird blend of inchoate rage, offensiveness, and questioning-via-answering that's deeply confrontational and just removed enough to qualify for the "but they're just song lyrics" responsibility dodge.

While the album was well-received at the time, its release was problematic for a band who continually fought against the music industry machine. A promotional 12-inch of "Big Money" was released to radio stations, and surreptitiously sold by the label (Homestead) to a few stores, prompting the band to move to the friendlier environs of Touch & Go for their next releases. The incident, however, did not stop the band from touring, and they made their way through Europe and the U.S., championed by bands like Sonic Youth. Unsurprisingly though, tensions soon mounted within the band due to divergent personalities, and Big Black soon announced their break-up, which was followed immediately by the release of their now-classic Songs About Fucking LP. 

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