50thirdand3rd

Big Black – ‘Kerosene’

Big Black were quite a band; powerful, shocking, thought-provoking and funny. The 1986 Atomizer album was (arguably) the highlight of their short-lived but hugely influential career. Kerosene was (arguably) the highlight of that album.

The opening, metallic riff comes on like warped, church bell chimes and it periodically explodes with Steve Albini’s ‘rocket guitar’ and Santiago Durango’s ‘train guitar’. Dave Riley’s meandering bassline gives the song its groove and the hammering drum machine gives it its pulse. Meanwhile, Albini’s typically caustic lyrics relate the tale of a small town resident who combines his twin loves of sex and arson.

This is peak Big Black.

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Big Black had started out four years earlier as just Albini and a drum machine called Roland. This iteration released the Lungs EP on Ruthless Records. Albini now professes to hate this recording – “It just makes my flesh crawl. I can’t listen to that record anymore” – but he used it to entice guitarist Santiago Durango and bass player Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun to join him and Roland, and turn Big Black into an actual band.

The new line-up took the template established in Lungs and turned it up several notches for their next releases. The songs on the Bulldozer and Racer X EPs both feature those relentless, electronic beats, jagged, unconventional guitar sounds, lip-curling riffs and sordid themes. They were finding their sound but it was the arrival of Dave Riley, replacing Pezzati, which saw them reach their potential. His bass chops added an element of funk into the already potent mix. This was the line-up that would record Atomizer.

Big Black band shot

Big Black

Atomizer saw Big Black trawling up pulp legends from the darkest depths of small town America and setting them to music that’s sometimes so abrasive it hurts. Bazooka Joe is an upbeat ditty about a desensitised Vietnam veteran putting his numbness to violence to profitable use, Bad Houses is about an individual’s compulsion to do “bad things…even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation”, while Jordan, Minnesota is a deeply unsettling tune about child abuse. And of course there’s the pyromaniac porn of Kerosene.

The combination of macabre subject matter, dark humour, relentlessness and sheer power that the band displayed on Atomizer tapped a vein in underground circles, sparking myriad bad imitations and elevating them to new levels of popularity. Despite this, by the time Big Black recorded their next LP in 1987, they’d already announced their intention to split. The stated reason was that they didn’t want to outstay their welcome, but Durango’s decision to start law school may have been a catalyst.

The band’s final album, Songs About Fucking – its ironic title derived from Albini’s often-stated bemusement at love and romance having become music’s default subject matter – sees Big Black treading similar territory to Atomizer, and it’s another fine album. Kasimir S. Pulaski Day, Bad Penny and the cover of Kraftwerk’s The Model and are among the best things that they ever recorded, but as a whole Songs About Fucking is just about edged out by its predecessor, and Kerosene is a big factor in that. The subject matter, the aggression, the funk, the power; it was breath-taking, disturbing and incredibly original. It was peak Big Black.

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Nick Perry

Nick writes fact, fiction and opinion in various places including
his music blog noisecrumbs.com. His musical tastes cover indie, grunge, golden-era hip hop, punk, funk, psychedelia and a big portion of distortion. You can and should follow him on Twitter @NoiseCrumbs.

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