Ah KOKO, I’ve not been to Mornington Crescent’s KOKO for a good few years and it’s reassuring to see that it’s still the same old labyrinthine mangle of stairs and tunnels it always was. A Burgundy maze, filled with beautifully elaborate, old school music hall designs and confusing platforms leading to more platforms. Maybe I’m just particularly spaciously inept but I always find it a bit mind-boggling.
On this occasion the cause of my visit to the glittering glam-womb was the return of Chicago noise-rock legends Shellac, or Shellac of North America as they are often known.
There’s not much that hasn’t already been written about Shellac over the years, but hey, I’ll give it a ruddy good go anyway in a defiant act of bloody-mindedness; and not many bands typify bloody-mindedness quite like Shellac.
Formed in 1992, the trio consists of legendary producer Steve Albini (who famously produced Pixies, Nirvana and, of course, Jarvis Cocker) on guitar and vocals, Bob Weston on bass and vocals and Todd Trainer on t’drums. Since 1994 they’ve released five albums of fiercely agitable noise-rock, the last being 2014’s corrosively brilliant Dude Incredible.
They’ve always been a band to do things their own particular way and Albini has been very vocal in the past about remaining as independent as possible. Albums aren’t sent out to press, there is very little PR and unlike most bands they don’t do social media. They are a band that have their very singular head tightly screwed on and they know exactly which way they want to face.
Together their hard-as-nails rubbernecked basslines, taut, stabbing guitars and controlled, powerful drumming is as tightly knit as you can get. Shellac’s is a honed sound that will bludgeon your head so far down into your torso that you’ll be able to perform a tracheotomy on yourself.
Opening for Shellac would always be a daunting task, especially on their first return to these shores in two and a half years, but Helen Money was, well, bang on the money. Striking a lone figure on stage, Money, with her cello and many pedals, made one hell of a racket. It sounded as though there were an entire gaggle of people treading the boards and making a suffocating cacophony, rather than a solitary one.
Money’s set was a great aperitif of harshness, shaking the already excited audience into an anticipatory, jittering throng, ready for the tasty main meal about to come. The stage was perfectly set and as the understated entrance of the three Shellac members arrived, they were met with a roar of appreciation from the music hungry crowd.
Opening with ‘Canada’ from their 1998 album Terraform it was very clear that we were about to witness a spectacular schooling in minimalist punk racket from the finest in its craft.
KOKO was absolutely heaving at this early point and the crowd were lapping it up like riff-hungry dogs. To rest my Raw Power Festival ravaged ears I stood up on the top balcony, hoping that the noise would be dampened and less harsh than it would be lower down on the dancefloor. Man alive, was I wrong. Shellac were loud. The beautifully harsh guitar sound in particular cut straight into my ears like a warm knife into even warmer butter.
At one point I wanted to get to the ground floor but there were so many people nodding away that I couldn’t see nor get down to the bloody stairs (damn you KOKO), so I had to hover about in the upstairs shadows like some common troll, looking all shifty until a space opened up and I could bolt downstairs.
On stage Shellac were interacting with the crowd, conducting a mini question and answer session. Someone asked who 1000 Hurts’ murderous classic ‘Prayer To God’ is about: ‘Who was that song about? You!’ came the answer. It’s an understatement to say that Shellac are a bloody funny band, lyrically and during the in-between song chat. Acerbic doesn’t quite do them justice.
Their set is frankly ridiculous and trying to pin-point highlights is totally futile as every song was fucking great, but the end run of songs: ‘Wingwalker’, ’The End of Radio’ and ‘Crow’ were savage lessons in taut, building intensity.
As each band member added a frantic, breathless holler to final song ‘Spoke’, the dancefloor vanished into a sea of steam and sweaty limbs and when it sadly finished, drawing the set to a close, the shell-shocked audience streamed from KOKO’s network of passageways out into the street in dumbfounded awe, our heads heartily squashed down into our torsos.