Not 1986. Not 2 (But 1)
This is, without any doubt, the mighty Big Black’s finest hour. Superb though their studio material is, this live album has a ferocious intensity which takes it to a whole new level. Such is the quality of the musicianship, it doesn’t trade that intensity for a shambolic performance – this is as tight as anything they recorded. The tracklisting is superb too – it works well as a career retrospective.
Big Black, in case you don’t know was Steve Albini’s first band, at least the first anyone took notice of. He is, by some distance my favourite guitarist, and while he’s never an easy listen, he sounds like no-one else before or since. He’s also known for some pretty offensive lyrics, but he always claimed they existed only out of necessity, and for me the band works better when the lyrics are downplayed and the words indecipherable as they (mostly) are here. Shock is supposed to be a part of punk, but Albini’s lyrics often go way beyond that into the frankly unbearable. In a way they fit with the full-on sonic assault of the music, but still…
The album itself has a somewhat curious history. It was claimed to be a bootleg, but in fact was a disguised official release. The “label” doesn’t really exist – it was in fact issued by Blast First!, their UK label, and it had normal distribution, although it was rather expensive. There was an initial pressing of 1000, followed up by another of 500, all numbered. Blast First! then put out another 500 without the band’s permission which caused a permanent rift. Out there in internetland, it’s claimed Albini walked away from Blast First! because of it, but clearly he didn’t because his next band, whose name I’m not going to type here, was on the label. My copy is one of the unauthorised 500.
There’s some attempt to make this look like a bootleg – there’s no mention of the band on the cover, the artwork is very cheap, and the printed track listing is fictitious. However that’s where the shoddiness ends. I’ve already described the quality of the performances, but it’s also a really well compiled album. It derives from three separate soundboard recordings, and it’s obvious a lot of trouble was taken to pick the best from each. It loses a little as a result – it’s not a continuous performance, but the sheer class of what there is more than makes up for it.
The sound quality is also interesting. Big Black were never a band to flatter your hi-fi with, nor has Albini ever been in to messing with the sound to make it more palatable. He sees himself more as an archivist, documenting what bands, including his own actually sound like, which is what he’s done here. So this album is tiring to listen to, it jarrs, but that’s what the band sounded like…
The title of the album, Sound Of Impact refers to the last element in transcribed conversations of flight crews in the moments before plane crashes. The back cover is entirely devoted to these conversations, which make for chilling reading. You can read them here, alongside a typically angry Albini essay.
Further listening? I think the Atomizer LP was their best and is most easily available on the Rich Man’s Eight Track CD. Songs About Fucking runs it a close second but is harder to find. I might post a vinyl rip of it at some point if it really is as unavailable as it seems on the web site of everyone’s favourite tax dodgers.