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What if hell is silence?” was the first note I jotted down for this review, upon ending my second playthrough of Shellac’s sixth and final studio album—11 days after singer/guitarist Steve Albini died of a heart attack while working at his Chicago studio, at age 61. 

Back in March, when To All Trains was announced, the album was just a welcome return following 2014’s Dude Incredible, a decade being this post-punk trio’s longest pause between statements. Now, of course, it’s a requiem, and closer “I Don’t Fear Hell” is infused with meaning—one that fans of this most salty and precise outfit probably aren’t accustomed to ascribing to its missives. “Hell” is funny—a lot of To All Trains is funny—yet Albini’s long, storied career as a recording engineer imbues his deadpan afterlife musings with a foreboding sourness. How alienating would a soundless eternity—downstairs, up, or otherwise—be for someone to whom listening was so primary an act.

Albini, drummer Todd Trainer, and bassist Bob Weston lock in together one last time—a wiry whirlwind of concision, all jokes and referents (including a wink to the late Mark E. Smith of the Fall) and honed dynamics on their leanest LP, at 28 minutes. “Scabby the Rat” fiercely gifts the inflatable mascot of unions an anthem, while “Scrappers” salutes metal salvagers and finds a childlike wonder in the toil. The rowdy, putrescent “Days Are Dogs” takes two minutes to rail vividly against time itself: its opportunities, its slipperinesses, its rank infinities. You can mark time’s ravages in the vocals here: a tendency to speak more than to properly sing (“Tattoos”), an audible heft to the mighty yarl (“Chick New Wave”). That’s hardly sad, or disappointing; it’s unabashedly human and real.

Shellac bore a love of invention, performance, and camaraderie that “Girl From Outside” perfectly crystallizes. The guitars’ rolling amble stops just short of a strut. The cymbals pop like fireworks; the groove bends, this way and that. “Two guys from work, who are not at work,” Albini huffs, eyebrow raised, a graying, ageless bro en fuego, singing to anybody within the sound of his voice. 

Can you hear him now? “You know the song / It’s your favorite song / You are kicking ass on this song / HIGH FIVE!” – GRADE: B+

You can check out To All Trains on Bandcamp and elsewhere.

Touch and Go Records

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