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The late musician and audio engineer was synonymous with pummelling noise, metallic screeches and guttural roars. But in his quieter, often overlooked musical output, he applied the same dynamics to record tender moments of stillness, embracing grace and restraint with equal potency as he did noise and fury.

Steve Albini lived a life filled with noise. From having his brain re-wired as a teenager listening to the Ramones, to making filling-loosening, vein-popping metallic screeches with Big Black, to the pulverising bands he recorded and pushed to new extremes – among them, Nirvana, Melt Banana, Jesus Lizard, Neurosis – every facet of the musician and producer’s life was saturated with the surge and fury of loud music.

Even in his later years, you never got the sense Albini entered his winding down era. “I will always be the kind of punk that shits on Steely Dan” he posted on X last year. When he won a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 2018, he proudly sported a T-shirt of the Belgian noise punk band Cocaine Piss. Asked to curate, alongside his band Shellac, the 2012 edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties, he obliged with an unflinching programme of ear-splitting bands. Noise was in Albini’s DNA.  

“The music I like is ugly,” he told XS Noise in 2020. “Music I listen to for invigoration, the music that animates me and excites me – a lot of it is awful, in categorical terms. It’s ugly, it’s dissonant.” Albini as a character often fitted into this description too. He himself has been loud, ugly, and dissonant, a proto edgelord eager to agitate.

In many ways, it makes sense that the noisiest parts of Albini’s life and music are the ones that will be most loudly remembered. But in doing so, there is a crucial other side to his singular career that tends to be overlooked: his work recording quiet, gentle, and often acoustic music. Bands such as Low, Dirty Three, Smog, Will Oldham, Joanna Newsom, Songs: Ohia, Sparklehorse, The Auteurs and others. 

Conversely, it was arguably Albini’s love of noise music, and his inherent understanding of its principles and dynamics, that resulted in him being able to produce such genuinely stirring, beautiful and often tender music. 

Albini specialised in capturing a sound that, for the most part, understood the essence of holding back. Of knowing when to strike. A lot of the music he wrote, or produced, explored space and breadth as often as it unleashed kicks to the temple. Take Shellac’s The End of Radio, a spring-loaded yet slow-burning beast of a song filled with pauses and gaps that contain as much tension and bite as the hypnotic bass line, razor wire guitars and drums which sound like a marching band gone rogue.

Albini seemed to favour music that had a pronounced feeling of punctuation to it – music that was dynamic and had an unsteady feeling of discordant harmony. In 1994, when interviewed by Melody Maker for their Rebellious Jukebox feature, in which Albini picked out 15 records that shaped him, they all appeared to broadly share this common feeling between them. This included records by the likes of The Stooges, Suicide, The Fall, John Cale, The Pop Group, The Minutemen, Glenn Branca and Slint. 

The latter of those bands had a profound impact on Albini and arguably his own aesthetics and approach to recording techniques. While Albini had produced Slint’s noisier math rock-y debut album Tweez, in 1987, they went elsewhere (to Brian Paulson) to make their 1991 masterpiece, Spiderland. That resulting album – one loaded with understated beauty, recoiled tension, taut execution, and a stripped-to-the-bone essence that set the template for post-rock – seemed to have had the same impact of the music that changed Albini’s life as a teenager. “Stark and simple, it doesn’t surprise me that this album has spawned a whole sub-genre (Slint bands) in the States,” Albini wrote in Melody Maker. “Few of those bands have the grace or restraint to make music this moving, however. When I first heard Slint I didn’t get it. Once I got it their music took over whole days of my life. It was like listening to that first Ramones album over and over and over, just to make sure I got everything out of it I could.”

"Albini specialised in capturing a sound that, for the most part, understood the essence of holding back. Of knowing when to strike."

Albini strenuously rejected the idea of placing his own musical tastes on other artists. “If you ask me: what do I bring to a session, I think the first thing is just raw competence,” he said in 2020. “I try very hard to keep my tastes and aesthetics out of the studio’s decision-making process. It’s almost a completely sympathetic practice.” While he remained a staunch advocate for a “the band is boss” mentality in which he refused to offer creative input to recording sessions, you can’t help but conclude that this “grace and restraint” that Albini fell in love with so hard perhaps seeped into his own preferred methods for recording music. 

Within a few years of Spiderland being released, Albini’s output expanded. His work on Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers 1995 album, Viva Last Blues, saw him taking on folk; a year later baroque indie UK group The Auteurs landed in Chicago to work with him, and soon a wave of artists keen on stripping things back and turning things down – Smog, Low and Dirty Three – all made quietly stunning records with Albini. 

The post-Nirvana explosion may have sent blockbuster major label bands like Bush to work with him, along with ageing rockers looking to get a sprinkle of the zeitgeist grunge sound – namely Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – but at the same time he was being championed as the king of noise, he was also producing a building catalogue of softer music. 1996 may be the year Albini produced Bush’s number one album, Razorblade Suitcase, which would go on to sell millions, but songs like I Break Horses by Smog’s Bill Callahan feel, in some ways, more foundational to his evolving production style.  

Albini brought out the fragile beauty in this early masterpiece from Low,” Alan Sparhawk reposted on X after Albini’s death, referring to the exquisitely beautiful album he produced of theirs, Things We Lost in the Fire. It’s not a record that has come up very often in the wake of Albini’s death as being one his finest recordings but it truly is. There is a punch and potency buried underneath the delicacy of the record, which is especially heard in the late Mimi Parker’s sparse, stark, simple drumming. That crisp, dry yet vibrant snap of the drums recalls Albini’s noisier recordings but toned down – it’s more like a pistol being fired from distance instead of in the same room. 

Similarly, an album like Ocean Songs by the Dirty Three – an Australian three piece featuring the long-time Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis – is another that seems to get a little lost amongst the noise. Yet listening to a song like Authentic Celestial Music, those same drum sounds on records by the likes of PJ Harvey and Pixies that studio nerds have been geeking out over for years are just as present and powerful here, albeit more subtle as they crash like lapping waves against the twisting strings and mournful guitar. In fact, in a moment of crisis that the band couldn’t make the quiet album they had set out to create, it was Albini that steered them back onto a gentler course. “That album’s existence as it is, is down to his advice in a fragile moment of doubt,” Ellis wrote after Albini’s death. 

Albini was a master of intimacy and being able to put you in a room with a band, whether they were rumbling your innards with punishing intensity or whispering into your ear. On paper a band like Sunn O))) or Joanna Newsom have little in common, but filtered through Albini, they end up sharing similar traits albeit with starkly different tonalities and sensibilities. The tension, grace and tactility of Joanna Newsom’s harp plucks on Ys ring out with such clarity it feels as though they are dancing inside your skull.

“He has an incredible, magical touch,” Newsom said of working with him. “It’s incredible what he can capture…the spirit, the immediacy and the intimacy.” And when drone titans Sunn O))) recorded with Albini – a band whose literal mantra is “maximum volume yields maximum results” – they came away with a record that they marvelled at the “structure, colour and texture” of. Even PJ Harvey, who’s most visceral album, Rid of Me, Albini recorded, recently remembered him and his approach as “patient, methodical, sensitive”. 

“I like noise,” Albini declared in a manifesto he wrote back in 1986 for the fanzine Forced Exposure. “I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin. I wanna feel it whipping through me like a fucking jolt.” Almost 40 years on from those words he set out to live by, Albini created more big-ass vicious noise than most people on this planet. Yet underneath that staggering pile of big, brash, brutal music that he loved so dearly, he also quietly left behind a different body of work that hits just as hard – perhaps just not as loudly.