By: Eric Greenwood
Man, just as I'm quickly becoming a borderline obsessive Shiner fan the band decides to call it quits. Isn't that always how it works out, though? Discovering The Egg this past summer was one of the most exciting musical obsessions I've had in years. Now, I'm slowly combing through the back catalogue to see how it all evolved, and DeSoto's re-release of 1997's out-of-print Lula Divinia couldn't be more perfectly timed for someone in my shoes.
Shiner's sound stems from the mid-1990's math rock explosion but with a much heavier backbone. I don't want to say "metal" because that automatically dictates that it be cheesy, which Shiner never is, but some of the riffs on Lula Divinia could be construed as "metal-tinged." Allen Epley's voice is also one that may polarize some, as his register is deep and raspy in addition to the fact that he actually knows how to sing – but in a style not too dissimilar from some of the more commercial alternative-type bands – but worlds upon worlds better.
So a casual listener might think Shiner somewhat commercial-sounding. Bands with thick as molasses production and such blatant musical wizardry usually end up on major labels, but Shiner is and has always been staunchly independent, if not, ironically, somewhat of an uderdog. To write off Shiner as “commercial-sounding” is a shallow assessment. Shiner's arrangements are far too complex for any kind of radio, other than college, despite Epley's uncanny knack for coming up with irresistibly hummable vocal melodies. And, my God, how his band rocks. Drummer Tim Dow is a lead-footed wonder, pummeling a mountainous cacophony behind Epley's and bassist Paul Malinowski's monstrous and dueling riffs.
Like similarly minded bands Hum, Clockhammer, or even Chavez, Shiner's bread and butter are its technical precision and jaw-dropping dynamics. The band's sound is huge. Even the quiet parts make your chest vibrate. The opener, "The Situationist", unfurls in a rolling, somber arpeggio, as Epley intones in his lowest cadence, and you can just feel the tension building around the corner, but you're so unprepared for the colossal nature of its true momentum when it actually hits that you stagger backward in disbelief. Epley jumps into a raspy strain for the chorus, which is a glorious thing to behold, but far too brief. The song takes a divergent turn for next several minutes avoiding the verse or the chorus, so that when the chorus finally hits again, it knocks you flat on your ass. What a way to open an album.
"Christ Size Shoes" is an immediate joy to the ears. Epley's choppy riff is aggressive and driving, and his vocals soar over the noise. The music turns inward for the chorus, allowing Epley to belt out his ambiguously poetic lyrics at full throttle: "and at the rate of my exchanges, I’ll never find the shoes to fit these feet/ so sing for us and drink for us/my size cannot be found/it’s somehow, always/just a half size shy." The rock just keeps flowing on "My Life As A Housewife." Shiner's greatest strength is its ability to keep its heavy, loaded riffs as interesting and catchy as its melodies, and this song is the best example of such an unlikely marriage.
The playfulness of "Third Gear Scratch" reveals Shiner to be a band that doesn't take itself too seriously, which is always invigorating. Even at its most jovial, though, Shiner still retains a sinister edge- the toughness of its mammoth rock always looming like a dark cloud. The tense post-hardcore flail of "Sideways" is the most obvious case in point. One thing I've come to realize is that bands like Shiner are what I like to call "dude rock." Even though I've never been to one, I'm almost positive a Shiner show would contain very few ladies in the audience since the fairer sex rarely indulges in such heady guitar games. There are exceptions, of course, but I've been to my share of shows to know that not too many ladies dig on geeky guitar rock.
The quick assault of "Shelflife" bruises and burns with caustic chord changes and Epley's angriest and most cathartic vocals on the album. The highlight of the record, though, is probably its final song, the vast and sprawling "Cake", wherein Epley really shines vocally and lyrically. His melodies are always tense and visceral, and when he yells, "that's the novelty of this debate," it sounds like an avalanche is coming down. The interplay between Epley's guitar lines and Malinowski's bass bits is astounding here, but hammering it all home is Tim Dow's acrobatic drumming.
Lula Divinia is as grossly an under appreciated album as Shiner is a grossly under appreciated band. And the recent announcement that Shiner is ending its ten-year career is as frustrating as it is sad. Shiner never reached its full potential commercially, but creatively it leaves a staggering legacy. Lula Divinia stands as a formative building block leading up to the genius of what will stand as its final masterwork, 2001's The Egg.