As some of my friends may be sick of hearing, Daisy and I head off to Chicago tomorrow to see friends and to go to Cold Waves 3. So, I thought an appropriate Tuesday Ten to be in order, particularly as Chicago is such a musical town.
I could have cast the net far wider, but as always here I prefer to keep with music I either own or am familiar with. Anyway, here are ten bands associated with, or from, Chicago.
Useful timing, of course, with Shellac returning this week with new album Dude Incredible – their first in a seven years or so. Not a lot has changed in Albini, Weston and Trainer’s world – this is still ultra-taut, punishing rock music with near-perfect production. The latter, of course, should be a given, bearing in mind that two of the band are renowned recording engineers of which Albini in particular has put Chicago to the fore with his various bands other than Shellac (including the mighty Big Black, of course), and then Electrical Audio, his studio that has seen many, many bands pass through. So perhaps a much more important band than they first appear – not to mention their and Albini’s long association with Touch and Go Records, a label that also released the work by the next band in the list, and quite a number of my favourite US alternative bands from further afield (GVSB and Brainiac included).
Like a number of the bands featured this week, The Jesus Lizard actually came from elsewhere – and made their best music once they’d settled in Chicago…and worked with Steve Albini. Seriously, if you’re into “alternative” guitar-based music, and you’ve not heard the albums Goat or Liar, you should open up Spotify right now and rectify this. Not because they reinvented the wheel. Oh no, David Yow just rode the wheel into distinctly strange territories along with one of the best rhythm sections in rock, and there isn’t another band who could actually make you feel seasick purely by playing you an eponymous song on the subject. Otherwise, Yow’s hatred for the rest of humanity came out nicely with Mouth Breather, which is like one-hundred and thirty-seven seconds of rabbit punches to the head, while I’m fairly certain Boilermaker actually feels like being in a fight if you listen on headphones. Fair enough – they were never a band going to trouble the charts much, but then I don’t think the band actually gave a fuck whatsoever.
Interestingly, this band only were produced by Steve Albini for an EP that followed a couple of years after their debut album American Thighs, and judging on the chops shown on that first album, I was never sure that they actually needed Albini’s assistance too much. Veruca Salt were one of the many bands to rise to popular attention in the second wave of the alternative rock boom of the early nineties, and like a number of their peers, they were perhaps as beholden to what was bursting through as they were to classic rock of the seventies (the debut album title referenced AC/DC, and they weren’t averse to lighter-waving ballads, either). But also, they rocked hard, and if you only remember Seether, it’s probably worth another go at that album. Was never that keen on what followed, but their return this past year should be interesting if the first split single to surface since is anything to go by.
One of those earlier bands that had helped to kick the door through to the mainstream for the likes of Veruca Salt also came from Chicago, and were isolated in more ways than just geographically from their peers in the North-West of the country. They broke through as grunge did, but frankly they never really were. Like Veruca Salt, actually, there was a distinct feeling of classic rock in parts of their music – the epic soloing, the sometimes overwrought vocals, even the radio-friendly choruses that sometimes felt of another age (hello, Today). But the real reason that they were so popular is because for about three (ok, four if you include the B-sides and “offcuts” of Pisces Iscariot, which we should) albums they were so damned good, and the sumptuous re-issue series recently has only put into stark relief how far the bands quality control dropped once Billy Corgan was in sole control.
Chicago didn’t escape nu-metal, either, with the emergence of one of the bands that have come to signify the weaker elements of nu-metal. As a result, it is easy to forget that their breakthrough single was actually a damned good song. No, I’m not talking about Down With The Sickness, I’m talking about Stupify. A song that bursts through the wall like a train, no intro, we’re straight into that awesome groove, a killer chorus, even industrial and world music influences, that initially suggested that the band could be a really interesting one. Sadly it didn’t work out like that, with the rest of that debut being nowhere close to the quality level, and then there was the obligatory, terrible eighties cover. Let us not even speak of what has followed since.
Needless to say there was no way this week was going to pass without a mention of the legendary industrial label WaxTrax!. Ironically enough, like some of the bands here, it was also transplanted into Chicago (from Denver in this case), and it was in Chicago where things (eventually) flourished for a time during the 80s and 90s. Despite the many stories about the excesses of the time – documented in various books and videos – it is maybe a little surprising to find that a number of the bands from that time are still going. One of them being the Thrill Kill Kult, Groovie Mann and Buzz McCoy’s infamous industrial band that have always pushed the right buttons to ensure they gained attention, and have done it in such style at points that we’ll forgive a bit of a weakening of their sound in recent years. But at their peak, their sleazy industrial dance music, complete with torrents of B-Movie samples and sneering vocals with instantly memorable refrains, has ensured their legacy as a dancefloor slaying band remains intact.
Originally from NYC, Sister Machine Gun’s history is rather tied up with WaxTrax! in Chicago, not for the first time here, with Chris Randall even working for the label prior to them getting signed, not to mention working with members of various other bands in the same scene. My own personal following of the band mainly comes from the first couple of albums, the industrial sleaze of Sins of the Flesh and then perhaps the rather punchier The Torture Technique (from which comes probably their greatest song, Wired). Never the biggest or most popular band from the industrial movement of the time, but they are certainly still worth a listen.
The last of three WaxTrax!-linked bands in the list, these guys only were signed to WaxTrax! for one album, having remarkably made it to major label Atlantic for the previous Big Electric Metal Bass Face, but even from debut Disco Rigido, their commitment to making industrial music to dance and groove to was fairly obvious. And if you hadn’t picked up the message by the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin of Jack Hammer, well, maybe you were in the wrong place. A sporadic career kinda lost momentum in the end, but Jim Marcus has picked it up again since with a similarly dance-orientated project in the form of the “pro-sex, anti-war” GoFight, and who are, perhaps, even better than the band that preceded them.
Acumen Nation arrived on the scene after the heyday of WaxTrax!, but are perhaps a useful pointer towards how the industrial scene in the city was to evolve later in the 90s and into the new millenium. Hindsight allows us now to note their position as trailblazers somewhat, incorporating breakbeats (early single Gun Lover) as much as guitars and industrial electronics from the off, and the band coupled this harsh, heavy sound with searing, angry vocals that certainly made them kindred spirits with their predecessors in the city. After something of a second wind in their second decade, tragedy of course struck with the suicide of Jamie Duffy a few years back, with the Cold Waves festival honouring his memory each year now.
Finally, a band who have fallen through the cracks of various genres to remain a band who are difficult to classify. Being signed for a while to Alfa-Matrix in Belgium may suggest an industrial band, but listening even to their earlier work suggests a band who had a restless style that was just as happy taking in rock and pop influences as they were industrial, with a livewire frontwoman in the form of Brittany Bindrim, whose expansive and impassioned vocal style certainly made them stand out. It seemed, however, that the success that they surely deserved never quite arrived, and they appear to have retreated to self-releasing music from their native city – but when they are releasing songs as astoundingly good as Skin Tight, there is clearly life yet.
And so, I conclude this by noting that there is so much more music I could have mentioned from Chicago. There is the deep, rich history of blues, jazz, soul and hip-hop, which I could never do justice to here, not to mention more bands from the scenes mentioned above. Some of the latter play Cold Waves 3 this coming weekend, and there will be coverage on amodelofcontrol.com of the festival after the event, a weekend which also marks exactly eighteen years since I started writing about music. A fine weekend for my writing to reach this milestone, I think…