The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities. Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I love Van Halen, for instance.
But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians. They met at Oberlin College. The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes. The band name was surely ironic. Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung. But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.
Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:
Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.
I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs. But I recommend his music.
Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud. Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet. In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums. The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc. But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order. I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty. Enjoy!