Shellac's second album is the sound of Steve Albini going soft. Relatively speaking, that is: Fifteen years after he started his career with Big Black, Albini's vocals are still choked screams, his guitar still sounds like an army of power tools, and his idea of a great beat feels a lot like being kicked in the stomach, repeatedly. Albini has been known for being many things: a fanzine provocateur, a producer (Nirvana, the Jesus Lizard, Bush, and a thousand unknown indie bands), a fine purveyor of lousy jokes ("A giraffe walks into a bar, says 'the highballs are on me' "); depending on who you ask, he's a jerk or a genius. But now, instead of spewing vitriol he establishes mood; his concept of a groove has slowly matured to the point where, on the new Terraform, the feel is more mantric and less abrasive -- he's content to simply ride on the slow builds that bassist Bob Weston (a longtime Albini associate and a noted indie producer on his own) and drummer Todd Trainer create. Big Black used musical and lyrical shock value to get their point across, but Shellac, on Terraform, don't use, or need, that crutch. Playing it cool and playing it slow, the band simply leans into its music, and the results are just as effective. At times, it even counts as beautiful music, and with Albini, that's shocking enough.
Not that he's lost any of the ferociously independent edge that's made the Chicagoan a hero among record-geek devotees. Terraform is currently available only on vinyl -- a CD version is scheduled for later this year -- in keeping with Albini's fervent distaste for the digital era. (If you want to hear Big Black's finest album, 1986's Atomizer, in its entirety, you need a turntable; the CD reissue, retitled The Rich Man's Eight-Track Tape, removes one song from the record.) Just as Ian MacKaye still fights the good indie fight with Fugazi, Albini's machinations within, and outspoken attitudes about, the music industry have often obscured the actual music itself. That's partly because what Albini does with a band has become so familiar: He creates harshness, intensifying the epileptic disco of groups like the Gang of Four and early Public Image Ltd. That harshness, as well as cynical, self-loathing tales about racists, teen-age suicides, wife beaters, porn stars, child molesters, and other white-trash bottom-feeders, Albini adores.
So it's jarring that, as the stylus sets down on side one, track one, Terraform goes about its business slowly, even beautifully. Opening with the 12-minute "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are," the music slowly circles around Weston's simple, dublike bass line. The beat is repetitive, but it's compelling, and by the time Albini's guitar is slashing away at it near the end, the band's arrived at a sort of absurdist walking blues -- strong and flexible, and in no hurry to make all its points at once.
The hallmark of Shellac's debut album, 1994's Shellac at Action Park, was precisely that immediacy -- Albini achieving the same caustic, post-punk power with a regular band that he did while using a high-speed drum machine in Big Black. And while Terraform has a similar impact, it achieves its brilliant results differently. Action Park was built on Albini's guitar at its speediest, with Trainer and Weston whipping up a psychotic, huge-sounding boogie to keep up. The playing on Terraform's songs is more open. "This Is a Picture," "Mouthpiece," and "Rush Job" aren't "jams" -- that implies self-indulgence -- but they're occasions where the band can play loosely with song structures, tinkering with how they work. It helps that Trainer is one of the best drummers a post-punk band could ask for, capable of creating a smooth, jazzy feel, then shifting to a snare hit that sounds like a neck snapping. Sonic abuse has always been Albini's romantic ideal; on Terraform, it actually sounds somewhat romantic.
In fact, we only meet one true bottom-feeder on the record. "House Full of Garbage" tells the story of a man who lives in, well, a house full of garbage: As the band massages a noisy, avant-garde beat both Led Zeppelin and Pere Ubu would be proud of, Albini sings, inviting you to "Imagine a man so proud/ To build a monument to himself/ A mountain of garbage in his house." Thinking about the Steve Albini of old, you'd figure the lines to be an attack on rampant consumerism: You are what you throw away, after all, and if you happen to save it for a while, you'll be disgusted. But when Albini gets to the part where he imagines the man making love to his wife in the filth-ravaged bedroom, it almost comes on like a love song. A twisted, absurd, and repulsive concept for a love song, yes. But still a love song. And for Steve Albini, who always sets up his shady underground figures only to knock them down, that counts as a step forward. Wrath and rage and pummeling drum machines are fine, but on Terraform, Albini's finally found a way to balance the ugliness of the world he sees with a commanding sense of grace.