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Bastro - Sing the Troubled Beast / Bastro Diablo Guapo

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Artist: Bastro

Album: Sing the Troubled Beast / Bastro Diablo Guapo

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 20, 2005

It's not much of a surprise that the Bastro records are the last vestige of David Grubbs's back catalog to get a proper reissue. His was an angry-sounding, art-thrash trio that sits historically out of place between the bright, open chorded "Hüsker Pübe" college rock of his teenage combo, Squirrel Bait, and the deft, hyper-mature avant-folk styles he laid down in Gastr del Sol, and there's little to compare to either in Bastro's recorded output. Beginning in 1987, Bastro was nothing more than a dorm room experiment for Grubbs's time spent at American University, and not a very exciting one at that; his first release, a solo outing called Rode Hard and Put Up Wet, sounded like leavings from Big Black's Headache sessions. Its dismissal from this new reissue of the bulk of Bastro's output is no great loss.

In the next two years, Grubbs returned home to Louisville, Kentucky and grew Bastro into a full-time concern, adding a rhythm section of fellow Squirrel Baiter Clark Johnson and Oberlin percussion protégé John McEntire. And if his previous record aped Big Black, 1989's full-length Diablo Guapo fell in line with Steve Albini's macho endeavors with Rapeman, inasmuch as he was sowing his oats, and hired a wildcat bassist and deft drummer to bolster his torrents of guitar slashery.

Comparisons taper at that point, however. Diablo Guapo is fairly unlike any other records of its time, yet the shared influences with other bands of their day are tough to miss. Imagine Slint's unstable noise-metal hybrid Tweez grafted onto the relentless sci-fi bombast of early Voivod, and you're pretty much there. But if that sounds good to you, be forewarned that Grubbs tries, in vain, just about everything possible to stymie the ferocity such a combination might generate.

He starts by reciting some of the most embarrassing lyrics ever committed to an indie rock album, the kind that even twits the size of Conor Oberst or the folks in Arcade Fire would have the good sense to balk at. Witness the teen drama of "Filthy Five, Filthy Ten":

I stood in quiet estimation
Of a rabbitboy loincloth neighbor
Charcoal-bedecked cavity chest yodeling
"My way or the highway, baby!"

Yes, that is The David Grubbs, slight whisper of a man, now-associate of Rick Moody, and gentle strummer of an acoustic guitar. Mixing metaphors is one thing; but only a man who'd paint METALLICA onto the side of his parents' hand-me-down Volvo station wagon would have the cojones to leverage Lord of the Flies against Patrick Swayze's lost-chromosome weekend pic "Road House," let alone scream it, neck veins bulging like it meant something. Grubbs slips up again in the track order by bringing piano, the least rocking instrument known to man, into the mix with "Wurlitzer," a pointless, undercooked ditty about a dog gone bad, and a flatulent brass section into the end of the otherwise punishing "Guapo."

But where Diablo Guapo does hit, it hits brutally hard – and often. The band seems to be having a contest to see who can play the fastest, and the results, taken on their own, could easily take any comers of the era, from Bitch Magnet to Prong, in terms of their blistering attack, sheer excess and musical vitriol. Yes, that's Whitehouse's William Bennett stopping by to grind a power drill into a guitar at the end of "Flesh-Colored House." Of course that's them spitting out dizzying mathrock power trio action on "Engaging the Reverend" and ripping the strings out at the furious climax of "Shoot Me a Deer." Primal scream therapy notwithstanding, this is a terrific display of chops and testosterone, once you scrape away all the bullshit.

And there's even more to like in 1991's well-balanced followup, Sing the Troubled Beast. The year or so in between albums provided the trio with a more natural interplay and welcome breathing room within the songs. The production is more refined and plays up the strengths of all involved, and Grubbs has surer footing with lyrics almost as absurd as on the first go-round – this time you don't cringe as hard about screeds of hammerhurlers, dead Derby horses and "snakes with rabies and invisible green." Aside from a brief synth experiment ("The Sifter") and a strikingly retooled version of another album track ("Recidivist"), Beast not only cuts down on the non sequiturs, but blends the ones it does carry more successfully into the fibers of a chaotically heavy tapestry. There are legitimate dynamic shifts and stylistic flourishes at play here that influenced early Don Caballero worshipers and Drive Like Jehu clones for the years to follow, and are classy enough that they're still worth revisiting. It makes sense that this is the album that plays first in the reissue's running order.

And just as it all started to jell, Bastro was gone – Grubbs took the band on tour in 1991 with Bundy Brown in place of Johnson. A collaborative single with Codeine was issued on Sub Pop, and shortly thereafter, the band disintegrated – McEntire joined Brown in Seam, then Tortoise, and Grubbs going solo in Gastr del Sol, eventually teaming up with Jim O'Rourke for the bulk of the band's run. Consequently, these albums have remained out of print for over a decade.

Drag City's reissue sadly omits a raging cover of Phil Ochs' "Pretty Smart on My Part" from Diablo Guapo, and scraps the Mark Robinson collaboration on the flipside of the "Shoot Me a Deer" 7", but brings a welcome remastering onboard, bringing out sounds buried in dense patches that sounded midrange and dull before. So it's time to throw out your Homestead issues of these albums and step up to this.

By Doug Mosurock

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