The Brutality of Big Black’s Atomizer

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BY OLIVER KOGOD//

Recently in the Spanish course I am taking the class learned about the Ecuadorian painter  Oswaldo Guayasamín. We were assigned to watch a short video of the artist talking about his  work. When describing his paintings, Guayasamín repeatedly used the words “la brutalidad”  meaning “brutality.” Later in class, our professor asked if this painter reminded us of any other  artists. I could not think of anything but Chicago’s 1980s noise rock band Big Black.

Big Black is a brutal band. They are straight to the point, confrontational, powerful, bruising, and  abominable. The music makes you feel pain in places that you didn’t know you could feel pain  in. Within the CD packaging for the band’s The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape (a compilation  of Atomizer plus an EP plus a 45), one can find a paper insert. Across the top of the insert seven  words are written in big, blue block letters: “YOU PUSSIES CAN ALL SUCK OUR COCKS.”  That’s Big Black.

In my opinion Atomizer captures the brutality of Big Black better than any other album or EP.  Released in 1985, the 37 minute, 10 song record burns furiously. It’s harsh, not enough to make  you turn it off, but weird enough to make you take a closer listen. Instead of having a human  drummer like most noise rock/punk bands, Big Black used a Roland drum machine. This is one  of the separators that displaces Big Black from similar and traditional rock bands. The drum  machine propels the record, pulsating behind the shrieking guitars, like a factory machine. On  guitar is Santiago Durango and Steve Albini, who duel their metallic, sharp, shattering guitars  like swords. On bass is Dave Riley, hammering down lines with unforgiving force. Albini also  takes care of vocals, which sound harsh, somewhat vulnerable at times, yet are always delivered  in a stern tone.

Atomizer includes some of Big Black’s more well known songs, including “Kerosene” and  “Jordan, Minnesota.” But don’t solely focus on these, each track is great and deserves your  attention. 

As I said earlier, Big Black gets straight to the point. They aren’t gonna warm you up and entice  you with some soft sh*t. They go right after you from the start. This is exemplified by the album’s  opening track, “Jordan, Minnesota,” a dark, rumbling song that talks about a child sex abuse ring  (“This is Jordan, we do what we like”). Honestly, although I enjoy this song, focusing on the  lyrics can be triggering. Albini’s words are truly repulsive. 

Many bands may be afraid to start an album off with an intense song because it is hard to top  later in the album, or even with the second song. But Big Black is not afraid of this, going into  “Passing Complexion.” My personal favorite track off the album, the song has a jumpy rhythm, a  guitar sound that I’ve never heard before (how do they get that tone?), and a powerful driving bass line. If Big Black wanted to make a song with the intention of dancing to it (which I don’t  think they’d ever do), this is the one. 

Next, the third song “Big Money” opens up with some Black Flag reminiscent guitar chords,  before opening up into a speedy punk rager. Echoey, warbling vocals hit during the chorus,  which is only sang through once. 

I won’t go into details about each remaining song, but here are some things to look out for: 

  • the brittle opening guitar riff of “Kerosene”- how do they get guitars to sound like that?? -the interplay between the two guitars on the dejected “Bad Houses” 
  • the shrieking vocals on “Fists of Love,” in addition to the irony of the song’s title -the beginning of “Stinking Drunk” gives you a good listen of the Roland drum machine, also  Riley’s pounding bass 
  • about a minute in to “Bazooka Joe,” Big Black shows their true impressive musicianship  (without the need of provocative lyrics) 
  • a ripping bass intro with hey! chant on “Strange Things” 

Finally, the last song on the record is “Cables (Live).” Lyrically, the song deals with people  watching cows die in a slaughterhouse for fun. I would note that during the abrasive guitar intro,  an audience member can be heard yelling “louder! louder!” I would assume that the club this was  recorded in was already extremely loud. The remarks made by the fan may be funny, and they do  reflect the sheer brutality of Big Black, and their desire to push the limits. I also think about the  band’s choice to put a live recording as the last song. If you think the studio recordings are brutal,  imagine the brutality of seeing them live. 

To get an idea, check out this live performance of “Cables” from 1987, recorded in London. Big  Black’s brutal rawness is really on display.

If, for some reason, you were to find yourself standing on a highway and see a huge 18 wheeler  truck speeding directly towards you at an unsafe speed, that truck is Big Black. The drum  machine is the engine, propelling the giant monster; the bass guitar is the 18 wheels, grounding  the machine; the vocals are the dead cows packed in a freezer in the back of the truck; and the  guitars are the obese redneck truck driver yelling at you to get the fuck out of the road. 

I recommend listening to Atomizer, or any Big Black work, at a high volume. That is the way it  was meant to be listened to. Putting the record on at a low volume when you’re on the subway  does not do it justice. If you have headphones, or preferably, some speakers, crank up the  volume! Big Black hits you like a truck and you need to put yourself in its way for that to  happen. You don’t have to be a masochist to learn that Atomizer’s brutality is what makes it great.  Let it hit you, and you won’t be let down. 

P.S. If you want to watch some of Atomizer’s songs live, here’s a 1986 show from CBGB’s in  New York City.

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