Math in Words (Part 3)
by Oliver Pearson on October 25, 2012
Posted in: Music
This week’s Math in Words attempts to subject an individual to the kind of intellectualizing he made a career out of rejecting.
Writing any kind of introduction to a piece on musician/pundit/engineer/ Steve Albini is a task which is incredibly marred by the many ventures he is/was involved in and his determination to avoid such academic scrutiny. It is however essential to my project that I attempt to contextualise his accomplishments and work during the 90s. As an exponent of Touch & Go Records (an institution he once referred to as the “only responsible label in America”), Albini’s involvement is indisputable in the engineering of math rock as a genre (pun totally intended). Whilst insisting he receive no credit or royalties from musicians (a reflection of his belief that he is in no way responsible for conceptual ideas, just the capturing of them), we must note that distinctively math rock records such as Owls, American Don, and Ron just could not exist as they do without him.
Sketching an accessible profile of Albini is near impossible; the hellacious amount of information available and the sheer volume of his contributions means any attempt to do so will invariably become limited due to its subject matter. To avoid repeating countless articles and committing this piece to the more banal features on Albini, I figured a closer inspection of his recording principles and music journalism would at least be a little more original and conducive to a study of math rock.
The adulation of any self-respecting music-tech undergraduate, Albini’s approach to recording is tirelessly emulated, but never truly reproduced. Unlike the uniform and multi-tracked approach adopted by many modern studios, Albini privileges analogue apparatus for live recordings over digital, tailoring his sessions towards the sounds and intentions of the artists he works for (to suggest Albini works ‘with’ artists seems to me counter-intuitive to his project). Strategically placed microphones (each selected independently for their appropriateness) and the exiguity of the kinds of effects made ubiquitous by major studios combine to produce a sound which, however unconventional, seems a great deal closer to the sounds of a band playing than the versions offered by more traditional studios. Unlike the kinds of recordings saturated by studio gimmickry, Albini presents the kind of sound which complements the characteristics of math rock perfectly; the punch of a dynamic shift is totally lost once its been processed by an unnecessary compressor.
Albini ostensibly acknowledges a division of responsibilities in the creation of records, choosing to remain impartial w/r/t to production (preferring the designation of ‘recording engineer’ to ‘producer’) and allowing total freedom to the bands he works with; the bands perform in their respective creative capacities whilst he resolves any technical issues which may affect the desired sound of the record. This separation ultimately allows for the intentions of the artists to be more clearly communicated through their distinct lack of any compromise; Albini effectively operates less as an honorary member with artistic license and more like a trusty intermediary between the band and listener, relaying as accurately as possible the sounds coming from his revered home studio.
Characterized by an intolerance of pretentiousness and a certain iconoclasm, Albini’s journalism frequently confronts the questionable ethics of major labels and the shared malpractices within the music industry. Regularly contributing to a variety of zines, Albini promoted through many essays his belief that analogue loyalists would survive despite the growing affinity for digital production. This preference for format still exists in Albini’s work today, a remarkable achievement when you consider how this kind of approach has become all but obsolete due to the likes of music software Protools and Logic. Albini is likewise critical about the dubious intentions of music journalism more generally, suggesting in one interview that: “there is no one that actually works on stories, there may be feature articles about bands but there is no one, for example, trying to uncover the abuses in PRS society. There is no actual journalism going on.”
Albini’s journalism and punditry has subsequently led him to become something of the anti-philosopher for D.I.Y exponents and fans of math rock. Heralded as some kind of demigod, Albini has unfortunately become trapped by a fame which is as ironic as it is deserved; whilst reluctant to be affiliated directly with the albums he engineers, Albini’s name has become something of a short-cut for band’s desperate to validate their status as a respected identity in their field- Albini appears to acknowledge and refute this kind of glorification in his 1986 Forced Exposure essay by suggesting that: “I don’t give two splats of an old Negro junkie’s vomit for your politico-philosophical treatises, kiddies. I like noise. I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin.”
What ultimately seems the most refreshing quality to Albini is his willingness to engineer just about any record he finds in some way interesting; charging bands on their circumstances means that, in theory, anyone from U2 through to the precocious kids down the street indulging in atonal sonic-experiments could have themselves a great sounding record, providing their ideas captured his imagination.
This ethos is arguably an inherent part of math rock; if such producers didn’t exist, it’s unlikely anyone else would have taken the risk of engineering records that would find their market only once fans had consumed the vast amount of material already available to them. Whilst Albini may be reluctant to accept credit, it’s at least a little encouraging to have an anti-hero who’s prepared to work endlessly on records which however unpopular or inaccessible they may often be, are all important and respected by their fanbase. To offer a ‘suggested listening’ to end this piece seems to me a foolish move (his catalogue rivals Dante’s), so I figured I’d just recommend a listening to Slint’s debut record, Tweeze. Whilst no record Albini has engineered can truly operate synecdochally,Tweeze features a stock of his ‘trademarks’; the sounds of the band talking through a take, huge leaps in dynamics, and a mix which is only identified as his own because no one else would dare try it that way.