Shellac – A diagnosis from a (faux) Doctor

Published: March 29, 2024

Previous Diagnoses:

Paradise Lost|Primus|Faith No More|Paramore|HEALTH|Dir En Grey|Mc Ren|Black Light Burns

Band/Artist: Shellac

Origins: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Founded: 1992


Todd Trainer – Drums, Vocals
Bob Weston – Bass, Vocals
Steve Albini – Guitar, Vocals

Studio albums: 5 (soon to be 6)

Active: Yes

Sample: Here

Has there ever been a more distinct guitar tone? Welcome, denizens of Sputnik, to the ninth edition of the Doctor’s ‘Diagnosis Series’, where I go through a band or artist’s catalogue of music and analysis the core strengths and weaknesses found within their recorded works. Shellac recently announced their first new album in ten bloody years, so I felt it was an auspicious time to run through the trio’s work, which sprawls over three decades. So, sit in the waiting room for a minute and grab a coffee while I get my coat, stereoscope and gloves to run through this bitch.

At Action Park (1994)


The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: Named after the infamous theme park in Vernon, New Jersey, where at least six people were known to have died as a result of the park’s negligence and failure to follow health and safety regulations, Shellac’s 1994 debut sets the groundwork for their illustrious future. Being that this band is one third Steve Albini, you can only imagine the abrasive blare awaiting you. In a nutshell, Shellac’s MO is repetitious dissonance that stretches out as far as it can before eventually following up with a cathartic head-bobbing groove to release the tension being built up – rinse repeat. It may sound like I’m doing it a disservice, but that’s essentially what this band is notorious for. Nevertheless, while that is their brand in its most basic form, the execution is masterful. At Action Park does a superlative job building up this really uncomfortable, repetitious tension and releasing it at the most opportune and effective moment. The dichotomy of vibrant, crisp drums meeting Weston’s thick, crunchy bass grooves gives off this dark, unsettling aura to the songs, while Albini’s mechanical, shrill guitar tone forms the iconic package. Couple that with Albini’s charismatic vocal barks and punk-ish attitude and At Action Park immediately gives Shellac their unique sound.

Prescription: An excellent first entry for the band – merging ugly discord with hypnotic repetition and authoritative grooves to get the songs over the finish line. Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

Terraform (1998)


The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: I think it’s crystal-clear Shellac push it to the limit, right? If you’ve listened to any of their music, it’s fairly obvious these guys, like Swans, say, put a lot of focus on droning, hypnotic loops. The hilarity with Terraform comes from the fact Shellac decides to open up their sophomore album with a twelve-and-a-half-minute monotonous ring. Four bass notes strumming for two seconds at a time, over and over again — literally sounding like a broken record. The irony to this madness is that while it certainly overstays its welcome in parts, it still manages to be fantastic to listen to. The austere and fleeting variations ensure your attention is completely locked in with what the band is doing. Frankly, I commend their brazen decisiveness on “Didn’t We Deserve a Look At You the Way You Really Are”, because it works really bloody well. From the bass releasing tension with a slick walking fill at an arbitrary moment, to the guitar squawking inconsistently; it’s writing that seems easy to do, but it’s actually extremely hard to pull, and even harder to do this well. Outside of the opening track, we get a bunch of songs that mercifully sit around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, allowing the record to find some variation and momentum with its fixation on primitive arrangements and rationing note choices.

Prescription: A much more challenging offering than last time; it’s not as immediately rewarding as the debut, but I’d wager it’s a much more gratifying experience with repeated listens. Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

1000 Hurts (2000)


The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: After the endurance-testing Terraform, 1000 Hurts sets its sights on concise songwriting and more melodic-leaning vocal work. Don’t misconstrue this as being a softer record – this thing still hits like running into brick wall – but when you dissect what the album actually does over its predecessors, there’s much more vocal work this time around, and a more immediate riff-based structure to the songwriting, which could warrant making it the ideal starting point for newcomers. Where Terraform goes off into a much more acquired domain, 1000 Hurts veers off into another direction and offers a more palatable album – with At Action Park sitting in the middle of the spectrum with a more balanced performance and direction. Ultimately though, 1000 Hurts is another excellent record, with all of the hallmarks that make Shellac such an engaging band to listen to. The more direct approach definitely keeps Shellac’s sound fresh, and as I say, it could be the best place to start if you’re new to the band.

Prescription: A slightly more palatable version of the band, 1000 Hurts runs for around the same amount of time as the other albums, but says what it needs to in a much pithier manner. Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007)


The Doctor’s rating: 4.5/5

Analysis: So far, Shellac have been unwaveringly consistent in delivering interesting, sometimes challenging music in all the right ways, however, 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound is where I feel the band elevates their craft to another level. In a nutshell, Excellent Italian Greyhound is a fairly well-balanced and ambitious project that focuses far less on repetition being the core tenet for the album, and instead leans far harder on experimentation and variety. I won’t sugarcoat it; this is probably their most difficult album to gel with, because it has a heartier reverence for avant-garde – determined to sprinkle humorous and weird ideas over tracks – but it’s undeniable this album has some of the best riffs and grooves in their catalogue: from the slinky riff on “Steady As She Goes”, the noodle-y hammer-ons on “Be Prepared”, or the bass-driven “Boycott”, there’s a treasure trove of top-tier instrumentals to listen to on here. After 1000 Hurts, the vocals are used to even greater effect on here – spoken-word segments arranged to support the music in ways previously never seen before. This is also their best produced record to date and perfectly captures Shellac’s penchant for ambience and space in the most favourable way possible. “The End of Radio” in particular emits this capacious void interspersed with a threatening, bleak vibe and builds up to its cathartic conclusion. This is helped with the fact the instruments sound incredible, particularly that crispy snare, and it all converges to create a really unique experience.

Prescription: The most memorable songwriting and the best production, Excellent Italian Greyhound is their crowning achievement. The record still retains a disdain for conventions and accessibility, but at the same time, Shellac refines its abrasive sensibilities to the point where it’s undeniably engaging. Repeat prescription: Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

Dude Incredible (2014)


The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: As a Shellac fan, Dude Incredible is everything you could hope for  from a band that has, up until this point, been going for just over twenty years. It has all of the band’s abrasive post-hardcore-math-y-tinged songwriting and long-winded repetitious looping, and frankly, that’s all it has to do. It lacks the raw aspirations from last time, but it more than makes up for it with a crunchy, crisp production and some killer riffing. That’s about all there is to it. Shellac’s fifth studio album is ultimately meat and potatoes writing; solid tracks that don’t reinvent the wheel, but will certainly appease any long-standing fan of the band.

Prescription: Next to 1000 Hurts this is definitely an easy entry-point recommendation. Dude Incredible captures the alluring essence of the band and serves up a very worthy entry to their steadfast catalogue of albums. Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

      Doctor’s Notes:


  • An instantly recognisable, inimitable blend of post-hardcore and noise-rock.
  • The band do a great job of keeping their hypnotic repetitious writing style fresh – introducing new avenues to walk it down, and refining their superb production along the way.
  • You can’t really go wrong with any of their albums, if you’re into this type of music.
  • It has Steve Albini in it.


  • The longer tracks were designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and even though they are well put together, they can push the boundaries to the limit.

Diagnosis: Shellac are legends at this point. Their discography is unwavering, incredibly engaging and absolutely unique. It’s not exactly something you’ll be in the mood for all the time, but it’s hard to deny the trio’s talents and their ability to compose commanding songs that test your patience as much as your ability to sit still. There’s a psychological understanding with Shellac’s music; they know where the sweet spot is and know just when to break the tension with an undeniable groove or rattling riff. Suffice to say, the band have proven their capabilities time and time again, so there’s no doubt in my mind To All Trains is going to retain the same level of quality we’ve gotten from them in their thirty-year existence.

Who fears the King?

– Fuck the King.

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