Sunday, November 6, 2011

my engine's running: Bitch Magnet 2011 review

Having to slip into my old objective shoes is difficult because I'm used to promoting the things I love via this outlet.

Bitch Magnet was a band that was neither here nor there, in the critical bridging-alternarock-with-hardcore years of 1988-1990.  This was just a couple years before Sonic Youth broke punk, and Nirvana put out a record that you might have heard of.  Did punk really break, though?  Did Fugazi suddenly become a stadium act?  Did the Buzzcocks (they were around then) find themselves topping the charts?  I think a subset, the "accessible" subset of so-called punk, made it into the mainstream.  Certainly nobody calls Nirvana punk, at least these days (and you would be hard-pressed to find someone even back then call them "punk", for that matter).  Regardless, a not-insignificant number of bands - for whatever reason - suddenly found themselves in the spotlight and playing the mainstream late night talk show circuit, etc.

By the time critical mass was reached at this point, the American underground had largely become a fragmented scene of sorts.   You had the Washington DC proto-emo thing, with bands the likes of Rites of Spring/Embrace/Fugazi/etc on one coast.  On the other coast you had the LA "whither SST?" set led by the Black Flag disciples, and a (growing) Gilman Street pop-punk subset up in Oakland/San Francisco ultimately characterized by Green Day.  In the middle you had classic Midwest punk/hardcore blends of Die Kreuzen, the imploding Huskers, the entire Chicago scene, Michigan's underrated Laughing Hyenas, and (stretching the definition of Midwest) the Texan cowpunk of Scratch Acid.  This is just a sampling, of course; I could spend all day cataloging American indie/punk acts of this era and you'd long have decided that reading utterly randomized Wikipedia entries was more productive.

Each pocket represented a different, pretty consistent, sound.  Sure, the bands argued that they were not of a particular scene ("we exist outside of all time and place" nonsense was common then), but the filtering of hindsight finds a common thread running through each distinct geographical entity - with each regional pocket's associated acts connected in some fashion to that particular region's common stitching.

Then you had bands such as Bitch Magnet (previously discussed here, in fan mode).  With both feet equally in the post-hardcore and straight-up metal scenes, and a drummer so talented he may have been placed here by aliens *simply to drum*, there is no category that neatly fits them.  Labels are for canned food, anyway (according to a certain M. Stipe), but the nifty thing about labels is that it gives an outsider even a brief snippet of an idea what to look for when discovering something.  So you have to start somewhere.

What is great about these Bitch Magnet records is that even their records aren't sure what they want to be.  1989's Umber starts off with two, at their essence, metal tracks and then suddenly slips into "hey! We've discovered dynamics!  softLOUDsoft really sounds neat!" mode.  It then does a 180-degree spin and sounds like any number of 80s hardcore/punk acts, and then on the next track ("Douglas Leader") completely invents "modern" post-rock.  Again, labels.

1990's Ben Hur is another beast altogether.  Working with Steve Albini (err, Arden Geist, sorry) among others, the band refines the unique road they began hewing to with Umber, and really begins to define modern post-rock (sorry, Jon...) with this record.  The suppose-we'll-call-it metal is still there, but subsumed under complicated non-metal rhythmic patterns and a growing sense of melody and out-and-out songwriting.  Listen to "Crescent" and "Mesentery" (both recorded with Mike McMackin, not Albini) and don't tell me that underneath the noise you don't hear beautiful music.

Where it all began for this band, on 1988's Star Booty, is a muddled mess with interesting ideas emerging from the murk ("Sea of Pearls" is an outright classic, for this band, and several other tracks have their moments).  I don't think, though, that had I come across this record at the time, I'd have seen a path to Umber.  It's really just not there, because the growth of this band in the intervening year is akin to - gasp - Joy Division between the May 1978 "Warsaw" record and the April 1979 Unknown Pleasures LP.  That said, the mixes on Star Booty do not lend themselves to pictures of clarity; it is entirely possible that these same songs, properly recorded and mixed, might alter that impression.

For the most part, these records had either slipped quietly out-of-print or were only available via online retailer; copies of Umber and Star Booty (issued together on a single CD by their label Communion) were known to fetch prices anywhere from $20-$60 via eBay or Amazon depending on the season.  (I was fortunate enough to have snapped up my copy of U & SB during what can only be presumed a lapse, for the bargain-basement price of $16 for a used disc, in great condition.)  Ben Hur was periodically available as a new CD via the usual online merchants, but certainly it was never in great abandon or promoted.  So as is becoming the norm, the band reclaimed the rights to these recordings and have now remastered and reissued them via Brooklyn label Temporary Residence.

As with any modern reissue campaign, the band dug through those dusty tape boxes and fleshed out the records with errata.  Ben Hur appends two tracks unique to 7" releases, "White Piece of Bread" and "Sadie", which showcase the band's metal tendencies and punk roots, respectively ("Sadie" is a 2011 remix; the band was unable to locate the master for the 1991 7" so had to go back to the multitracks).  Umber finds producer Mike McMackin gifting a lost "louder" mix of the leadoff track "Motor", which, frankly, I struggle to see the difference (a bit louder racecar-effect guitar and Orestes' kick drum, it seems).

The biggest find, however, was a forgotten 5-song session recorded between Star Booty and Umber, which was recently rediscovered and mixed down with the band and John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky) in late 2010.  These five tracks - four of which would feature, in re-recorded versions, on Umber - are special.  The basic three-piece of Sooyoung Park, Jon Fine and Orestes Morfin recorded these (missing Dave Galt, who had yet to join the band on guitar), and the essence of these tracks is really captured here (along with some monstrous drumming, the best I've heard on a Bitch Magnet recording).  "Sadie" - making its second appearance in this set, though an earlier recording - is different to the Ben Hur take, and crushes it.  Excellent songs and for any reasonable fan of Bitch Magnet, these five newly-discovered recordings are worth the price of admission alone.

Now, the technical side.  If I had one complaint about these reissues, it would be the remastering (by West West Side Music's Alan Douches).  These reissues are mastered LOUD.  LOUD.  LOUD.  Sadly, too LOUD.  For a band that began to define dynamics in modern post-punk recordings, these dynamic volume shifts are obliterated by this needlessly in-your-face mastering.  It's fatiguing, and (in this blogger's humble opinion) frankly unnecessary.  While the remastered result doesn't appear to suffer the obvious "pumping" sonically-crushed masters often do, the relentless assault of constantly-maximized sound makes my brain want to take a break and take off the 'phones or get out of the room for a bit.  Music should draw you in, not push you away.  The original CDs did just that.  While I can understand the overall want to have the best transfers possible from the original master tapes, using top-notch technology available today that didn't exist when these were originally mastered in the late 80s/early 90s, there's no automatic "compress/limit the hell out of it" expectation at any stage of mixing or mastering.  There are records being issued today that are textbook examples of clarity and dynamic range, and these are not they.  My humble opinion tells me that such dynamically-involved records as these gain a lot of their strength, appeal and lasting power by their creative and effective use of dynamic range, something significantly lacking here.

The packaging is lovely, a nicely-executed 3xCD triple gatefold housing all the CDs and an attached booklet with great photos, flyers, and other errata.  I commend Temporary Residence and the band for keeping the price reasonable; can you name any other 3xCD "deluxe edition" set retailing for $15 (as this does)?

As I type this the band is amidst their first live dates, in this lineup, since mid-1989.  Far East fans are enjoying Seoul, Korea and Japan gigs before the reunited combo winds its way to Europe for gigs in December; alas, no Stateside dates have been announced.  Let's hope this is rectified.

Official site, preorders, etc (3xCD, 3xLP available for December delivery)!


  1. I have ordered the vinyl set. I still have Ben Hur on vinyl (with bonus 7in) and it always has been an amazing sounding record. My friend had both Umber and Star Booty on vinyl and those were great. I remember buying the cd combo of the two and was very disappointed in the mix quality. Funny enough, it was the 3rd or 4th cd that I ever bought and has actually fallen apart. All the reflective material has come off the plastic.

  2. Just found this site within the past month and I thoroughly enjoy.

    I appreciate your comments and echo the sentiment on the tendency of bands to mix their music (new and remastered) too LOUD these days. Your mastering work on the REM cassette material is outstanding. Thanks!