OFF THE SHELF: Shiner – The Egg

Shiner - The Egg

Shiner
The Egg
[DeSoto, 2002]

★★★★½


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It’s hard to believe that Allen Epley is still at it. With two critically acclaimed but largely ignored bands to his credit and a slew of consistently excellent but mostly unheard albums and EPs on a plethora of labels, you would think that two full decades of stress, frustration and aggravation would have gotten to him by now. And it probably has to some degree over the years, but through it all the proud Kansas City rocker has toiled and persevered, pressing onward and upward with first Shiner, and now the Life and Times, in tow. It would seem that Epley is rock’s Sisyphus, forever doomed to push the boulder up the hill but always coming up a step or two short of the summit.

At no time was this stigma more evident than in his days with Shiner. The band spent the majority of the ’90s bouncing around from label to label, never establishing a firm foothold at any one imprint and struggling to break through to wider audiences. It was the Washington, DC-based DeSoto Records that first took a chance on the group, releasing the “Brooks” 7-inch in 1993 and their first full length, Splay, in 1995. Although the label continued to release the occasional 7-inch over the next few years, the relationship sputtered and in 1997 the band moved to the now defunct Hit It! Recordings in order to compose and release the stellar post-punk document, Lula Divinia. After a stint on Owned and Operated Recordings for 2000’s immaculate and much underrated Starless, Epley and company ironically found themselves back where they started. With their potent mix of angular DC post-punk, Midwest math rock and hints of emo, they seemed tailor-made for DeSoto, the fiercely independent label that has been home to such indie rock stalwarts as Burning Airlines, the Dismemberment Plan and Juno.

Recorded and co-produced by the exacting J. Robbins, the band’s final and most accomplished effort,The Egg, creates an elaborate wall of sound that crackles and smolders with enormous guitars and live-wire intensity. Each blistering note and crushing power chord is captured in stunning detail and woven together in a thick tapestry that’s stubborn to get into, but still manages to entice from the first play. Witness the “The Truth About Cows,” a gripping mid-tempo cranker that features a sprawling guitar line that uncoils itself like a stiff, blustery breeze rolling across an open plain. Like many of Shiner’s songs, the track deals with the question of identity versus conformity and the consequences of difference in a society that expects and demands homogeneity. It’s a human dilemma we all face, and like so many of us Epley ponders the easier path of escape and oblivion, lamenting on the chorus: “I want to wake up and never dream / I want to leave out the memory / Left in the rain and it won’t corrode / Don’t make me exit the afterglow.”

The sonic radiance of the opening track is followed by the one-two punch of “Surgery” and “Play Dead,” a simmering stew pot of scintillating post-hardcore that has Shiner at their most daring and innovative. In what can only be described as an experiment in controlled chaos, the music here bursts forth recklessly from one maddening change to the next with astonishing stop-on-a-dime dynamics, tightly-wound rhythms and nervy tempo shifts played with urgent passion and surgical precision. The harmonic interplay is clever and complex with a host of guitar lines intertwining like a pit full of angry snakes, slithering and weaving about, buoyed by Paul Malinowski’s serpentine bass and Jason Gerken’s forceful drumming.

But it’s the title track that forms the album’s centerpiece—a tense, adrenaline-charged thriller that begins with a slightly skewed guitar line that Gerken just devours, attacking the song with reckless abandon. His runaway, stop-them-if-you-can drums wind their way over and through the rhythm tracks and push this song forward at breakneck speed like a train spun out of control while Malinowski’s deceptively complex bass line weaves its way surreptitiously through the mix. There is a calculated randomness to Malinowski’s playing here that is disarming but effective; his melodies appear suddenly out of nowhere, threatening to derail the song, then somehow he resolves it all just in time for the band to reconnect and explode into a powder keg of a chorus that has the band firing on all cylinders. “The Egg” also boasts one of Epley’s finest vocal performances. His breathy, laconic tenor has never sounded so good, especially on the chorus where he expands his range and reaches for the high notes that perfectly capture the cataclysm to which this song is obviously heading. Like a horrible car wreck, it’s oddly beautiful in all its destructive and violent glory.

For their part, “Andalusia,” “Bells and Whistles,” and “The Simple Truth” form the melodic core of the album as the band simplifies their formula just a bit, allowing Epley’s vocals greater space to wander. It’s a wise and welcome change after the sonic onslaught that fills the opening half of the album. “The Simple Truth” is like two songs wrapped up into one stunning work—one moment you are earthbound, riding the wave of tight, taut, muscular rock and then suddenly you’re transported to the surface of some distant moon with sparkling guitars glittering like stars and the gentle wash of an otherworldly echo mimicking the empty vastness of space. Guitarist Josh Newton effects and leads are wonderfully understated—a flash of hypnotic delay here, a burst of flange there; every phrase is smart, subtle and absolutely essential.

Those three gems are followed by the frantic, lightning-paced “Pills,” which is probably the album’s grittiest and most volatile track. A virtual firestorm of powerful and punishing guitars played with determination, on its own “Pills” would have made the perfect ending for a near flawless LP. But the band instead chose to close the album with the bleak, spaced-out “Stoned.” Funny, when I first reviewed The Egg upon its release in 2002, I blasted the track calling it “…lost and ineffective” and “…a dull, lifeless dirge that manages to disrupt The Egg’s meticulous, breathtaking pace.” Shows what I know. Over the years, the years the song has transformed into an essential wind down, a dirge, yes, but a stunningly hypnotic one, a song that not only highlights Shiner’s remarkable range but that gracefully puts to bed their finest work.

For those of us lamenting the lack of intelligent and emotive rock rich with depth and meaning, Shiner was crucial. The band was never content with the ordinary; they were always searching for that elusive hidden secret, that lost unspoiled treasure. Their music drags you to obscure and remote places where the air and view are foreign. This was/is a blessing for music fans sick from the hollow sounds of imitative run-of-the-mill radio fare, but unfortunately it was a curse for the group who never garnered the legion of fans they deserved. The Egg is a triumph, but for Epley and crew it was just another step up an endless hill.

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