Wednesday, March 24, 2010

indie postpunk pre-postrock: BITCH MAGNET

There have been three bands, or rather, two basic bands and another band that evolved from one of the basic bands, that I haven't been able to stop listening to for the past week or so.

So why not blog one of them? This week's particular band was on my future "I should probably blog these guys" list, but as is the case with most of my postings, bands move up and down the schedule - or are completely unplanned until I sit down to write the entry - with reckless abandon.

So, seeing as how last week we featured Slint, this week I chose one of Slint's compatriot bands, the North Carolina (by way of Oberlin College, Ohio) postrock pseudohardcore proto-math-rock combo Bitch Magnet. Slint and Bitch Magnet are related by band interbreeding, if you will: Slint's root band Squirrel Bait bequeathed Slint's Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, and that same band also bequeathed free agent guitarist David Grubbs, who played with Bitch Magnet for a duration.

But besides a terrific appreciation for dynamics, that's about the end of the similarities (though Slint's Tweez can be a good starting comparison point with Bitch Magnet in terms of dynamics, and raw sound). While a fan of Bitch Magnet will probably also enjoy Slint, fans of Slint's later material (i.e. Spiderland) may not appreciate the getting-away-from-hardcore basics underlying Bitch Magnet.

And besides, Bitch Magnet featured one of the BEST drummers ever in the annals of 1980s/1990s indierock, Orestes Delatorre (aka Orestes Morfin). The only comparison I can think of for Orestes's amazing drumming is Scratch Acid and Rapeman drummer Rey Washam - widely thought of as one of the greatest indierock drummers EVER. Orestes is absolutely up there with Rey: one of the best drummers I've ever heard, and criminally underrated amongst those who should know better (Pitchfork, I'm looking at you). There are transcendent moments all over the place with Orestes's drumming, touches such as the recurring "ting ting ting ting" of his bell-like ride cymbal slay me every time.

The only consistent Bitch Magnet members were Sooyoung Park (vocals, bass), Jon Fine (guitars), and Orestes (drums). Guitarist David Galt joined the band for their first full-length - 1989's Umber, and David Grubbs played on one track on 1990's Ben Hur. Galt did not play on Ben Hur.

Bitch Magnet's oeuvre was rather limited, with mainstream releases consisting of just a brief EP (1988's Star Booty) and the two previously-mentioned full-length albums. The band also released a few 7" and 12" singles, but those are VERY hard to find and I personally have never heard them.

Bitch Magnet broke up for unknown reasons following Ben Hur, with members going on to found Seam (Sooyoung Park), remaining in Bastro (David Grubbs), or disappear from the scene entirely (Orestes - though he did join Minnesota's Walt Mink for a brief spell in the mid 90s).

Star Booty, their 1988 debut EP, was engineered (or only mixed, the Internets are not clear on the details) by Steve Albini and I have to be honest here: it's really crap sounding. I wonder if the record label screwed something up in the mastering for release, because I'm really surprised such product passed Albini's legendary no-bullshit quality control. Granted I've not heard this on original vinyl, only the CD version - it's entirely possible the vinyl version sounds spectacular ;) The music is OK - I do like the proto-Seam melodicism of "Sea of Pearls", and "Hatpins" is a nice blast of 1980s hardcore, but overall this EP isn't what made me a Bitch Magnet fan. The songs eventually blur into a samey miasma that, while noisy, does seem lacking. (This EP was appended to the CD release of the following LP by their record label.)

Umber, the band's 1989 LP produced by Mike McMackin, is what made me a fan. I simply love this record. From wigout opener "Motor" to the understated beauty of the closer "Americruiser", the full 10-song set grabs you by the proverbial balls and never lets go. I hear audio references to Big Black and Scratch Acid (Austin, TX mid-1980s punk and Jesus Lizard ancestor) all over the place. "Navajo Ace" is a BLISTERING punk workout with some utterly jaw-dropping drumming courtesy Orestes. The languid soft/loud/soft dynamic beauty of "Clay" - another proto-Seam track - leads nicely into the very-Scratch Acid "Joan of Arc". Then we get an amazing quieter number "Douglas Leader", the first 2:30 or so consisting only of Sooyoung's gently-melodic bass and spoke/sung vocals. Orestes comes in with a nice touch in restrained drums, and finally we hear guitars washing over the track with icy-cold feedback. A standout. Then we have a few more brilliant post-punk mini-epics in a row, all with amazing drums and noisy guitars, and finally bring matters to a close with the stunningly beautiful "Americruiser". I can listen to this song on repeat all day, the gentle verses leading into the swelling choruses is so Seam-like it's ridiculous (and wonderful). And I have no idea what Sooyoung's vocals are about, though the musical phrase from his last vocal "sure could use a good place to sleep" leading into the overwhelming chorus of guitars and drums is spectacular. Yeah it sounds like Slint - but remember, this was before Slint's own take on this same style.

Overall rating? Almost 10 fucking stars.

1990 saw the band add Bastro's David Grubbs to replace the departing David Galt for one track (after touring with the band in 1989), and released the swan song LP Ben Hur (track 2 recorded by Howie Gano; tracks 4 and 8 recorded by McMackin; and tracks 1, 3, 5 and 7 by "Arden Geist" - which I suspect to be an Albini pseudonym, because 1) there is zero biographical, or anything for that matter, information on "Arden Geist" on the Internet besides mention of these particular BM tracks, and 2) the tracks bear every single hallmark of an Albini recording). While more a refinement of, than a dizzying progression from, the sound established with Umber, Ben Hur shows the band increasingly exploring a more textured side of their music: "Dragoon" is a nearly 10-minute epic beginning with feedback-laden guitar and Orestes' simple ride cymbal tings, before exploding into a melody-laced all-out assault of guitars, frenzied drumming and barely-audible spoken word vocals. "Valmead" (featuring a pseudonymous Grubbs as "Shannon Doughton") and "Gator" are instrumentals, "Valmead" exploring dissonance while "Gator" returns to Umber's pummelling in-your-face guitar and drum workouts. "Mesentery" is brilliant, while "Ducks and Drakes" and the amazing, beautiful closing track "Crescent" foreshadow Sooyoung's future Seam project: in fact "Crescent" could easily fit on either of Seam's first two LPs and nobody would bat an eye.

Overall rating? Not quite as strong as Umber, so almost 8 fucking stars. I wish the band explored more of the Seam/Slint textures they explored briefly on Umber, and touched on a bit here, and there are no absolute stunners (to me) on this record (as opposed to Umber, which features several), but this is still a fine, fine record the likes of which is almost never seen today.

I present all three records described above, slightly remastered for your listening pleasure, in glorious lossless FLAC. I really attempted to fix up Star Booty but essentially it's helpless, someone needs to revisit that from the original master reel.

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remastered from redbook CD by

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STAR BOOTY (1988, Communion Records)
Recorded by - or only mixed by, it's unclear - Steve Albini

01 Carnation
02 C Word
03 Sea of Pearls
04 Hatpins
05 Knucklehead
06 Circle K
07 Polio
08 Cantaloupe

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UMBER (1989, Communion Records)
Recorded by Mike McMackin

01 Motor
02 Navajo Ace
03 Clay
04 Joan of Arc
05 Douglas Leader
06 Goat-Legged Country God
07 Big Pining
08 Joyless Street
09 Punch and Judy
10 Americruiser

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BEN HUR (1990, Communion Records)
1/3/5/7 recorded by "Arden Geist" (Albini)

2 recorded by Howie Gano
4/8 recorded by Mike McMackin

01 Dragoon
02 Valmead
03 Ducks and Drakes
04 Mesentery
05 Lookin' At The Devil
06 Gator
07 Spite y Malice
08 Crescent

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edit #2: removed link.  Watch for official deluxe reissues!

edit: some factual updates thanks to Fred in the comments...



  1. Umber is without doubt one of my top 5 albums of all time.

  2. My copy of Ben Hur (which went missing years ago) came with a 7in that included Sadie (early Squirrel Bait-ish) and a live sloppy cover of the Misfit's Where Eagles Dare.

  3. Mesentery and Goat Legged Country God would not unzip. It might just be me. I am using 7Zip

  4. M Piedlourde: try downloading again. The files have downloaded for most just fine, I grabbed them myself (from a separate machine) and test extracted prior to posting. Try using winrar instead because the RARs do have a built-in recovery record.

  5. Sorry, but your part 2 archive is definitely messed up. It says it's supposed to be 95+ mb, but consistantly downloads as 29.2mb. Any chance you can try to re-upload that rar file? Thanks!

  6. cosmas: Try another browser or machine. I just pulled it down myself (with Firefox) and got the full uncorrupted file.

  7. If it still doesn't work, it's a mediafire issue and all I can say is try again later.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I'm sure I've got their Sadie/Ducks And Drakes (Live)7" on the Caff Coporation label in the attic somewhere if you need to hear it one day. The live track is stonking! That label was run by the blokes from St Etienne if my memory is right.

  10. All the links worked fine for me; mediafire's been very hit and miss lately though.

    This blog is pretty much the best thing ever btw.

  11. wow thanx. umber is my favorit record next to zen arcade.

  12. Hey... good to see someone giving Bitch Magnet props still... they're a vastly under-rated / under-appreciated band. Ben Hur literally changed my life -- I was so infatuated with that guitar playing that in 1993 I moved to NYC to join Jon Fine's post Bitch Magnet band, Vineland.

    I believe that Temporary Residence is going to reissue all three records soon... it's been in the works awhile.

    A couple of things:

    Arden Geist is Albini... I think the no-credit had something to do with them getting crap from him in Forced Exposure. He griped about them crediting him as "producer" when all he did was mix/salvage pretty shoddy recordings done at Oberlin.

    The Shannon Doughton on "Valmead" is David Grubbs. I believe that the name "Shannon Doughton" was some sorta Louisville inside joke, that's why Britt Walford used it on the Breeders record (possibly because of the 4AD's contract?) On all the other songs on Ben Hur, the only guitarist is Jon Fine.

    Also... Grubbs replaced Jon Fine (not Galt) in 1989 for a European tour that was Galt/Grubbs (see YouTube videos). After that Galt left and the Grubbs-only version recorded "Valmead". Then the band went on hiatus or something, but eventually Sooyoung asked Jon Fine to re-join to record Ben Hur.

    Or something like that... I only know these things from Jon and at that it's been 15 years since we talked about them.

    Jon went on to be in Vineland and the vastly superior and imposing Coptic Light with Kevin Shea (Storm & Stress) and Jeff Winterberg (Antioch Arrow). He was also a columnist at BusinessWeek for years, having excelled in the field of journalism as much as guitar.

    And yes Orestes is one of the greatest rock drummers ever.

    Fred Weaver

  13. Hi. Between Bitch Magnet and Walt Mink, Orestes played in God Rifle, which produced one CD in 1993 that was engineered by Mike McMackin. They also did some recording with Albini that was never released. If you care to, you can hear some of it here -