Lungs * by Big Black

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An Angry Dude and a Drum Machine: Big Black's Debut EP LUNGS

Nov 14, 2009
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Vintage and very PO'd Steve Albini

Cons:Anti-social, violent, downbeat music that only a select audience would want to listen to

The Bottom Line: At a little over twenty minutes in length, Lungs is still nineteen minutes more than most audiences would want to stand. 


I was first introduced to Big Black through a friend who handed me a copy of the notorious (and damn good) Songs About F_ucking album.  It was my first true exposure to straight-up noise rock, and thereby could be considered an important part of my musical experience.  The band, started in 1982 by Steve Albini who would later gain fame as a producer, would likely (understandably) prove too extreme in sound and approach for most listeners.  Albini's vocals are abrasive and aggressive, often screaming confrontational lines, while his guitar is equally rough and ragged, providing a noisy backdrop for the vocals. 

The band's first release Lungs, with Albini playing all the instruments over a drum machine (credited as a member of the band named "Roland"), would probably be completely unapproachable from a mainstream standpoint.  Containing six tracks that consist of little more than Albini abusing the guitar and rattling off menacing lyrics, Lungs was recorded on a 4-track and is self-described by Albini himself as one of his few creative regrets.  Obviously derivative of bands like Public Image, Ltd., Lungs is highly repetitive and downbeat.  It's an interesting record in the context of the rest of the band's work and provides Albini at his most cynical and angry, but is a record that would have limited (if any) value to the listener unfamiliar with avant-rock and noise.

The EP starts off with "Steelworker," with a primitive drum beat provided by the drum machine.  Over this base, Albini lays down some sinister synth lines and jangly guitar work.  Albini's almost spoken-word vocals here go through a thoroughly anti-social dialogue about being a menial worker being disillusioned by the world.  Follow-up track "Live in a Hole" provides much of the same, with louder and more noisy guitar and a more punishing drum beat.  The track finds Albini only intermittently adding vocals; the repeating instrumental parts make up most of the track which at the end throws in some "sax bleats."

"Dead Billy" starts off with mournful synth parts and a more relaxed tempo which is shortly joined by a honky bass groove and squawking electronic horns.  Albini's vocals here are pretty gnarly and downright nasty, delivering another downbeat bit of lyrics concerning the titular character.  "I Can Be Killed" moves along in comparison to the drudging previous track.  The beat is more uptempo and is backed up with swirling guitar and a heavily distorted vocal track that seems otherworldly.  Albini's instrumental parts are actually pretty well conceived here, if remarkably simple.

Fifth on the EP is "Crack" which operates over a pounding drum track.  The instrumental parts here are pretty hushed sounding mostly like white noise, with only select bits of sound  being distinguishable in the mix.  Albini's vocals are again heavily distorted and tinny, somewhat reflective in nature but downbeat: "This is like a slap in the face/this is like an amputation."  The disc concludes with "RIP," perhaps as close as this album comes to making a "song."  Jangling guitar chords are backed up by a kinetic bass line, with the vocals growling angrily over the instruments.  It actually seems like this track was written in a manner that has "segments" instead of the repetition-heavy previous ones, and the overall feel of the song seems to represent the finale of this depressing and hostile-sounding album.

Lungs released by Touch and Go Records is unreletingly downbeat and anti-social in nature.  I don't think this record was ever really meant for general consumption, never finding an audience outside of those who appreciate punk rock or noise.  The record is very unpolished and rough, with endless repetition that almost puts a listener into a trance.  For those familiar with Big Black, it may be worthwhile as the start of it all, but average listener would find nothing of interest here.

***
An entry in the Lean-n-Mean Write-Off.


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