Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: Babes In Toyland, "Spanking Machine"

Artist: Babes In Toyland
Album: Spanking Machine
Year: 1989
Label: Twin/Tone

While bands like Nirvana may have defined the "grunge" sound and are generally thought to be one of the louder, more angry bands of the era, the truth of the matter is, when compared to another seminal band of the time, the grunge movement might as well be lullaby music. When it comes to aggressive, harsh, and raging music, forget the endless list of male-fronted, copycat bands and look to the other side of the coin. While bands like Bikini Kill, L7, and Bratmobile are all important factors in the rise of the "riot grrrl" genre, when it comes down to pure anger and fury, none come close to Minneapolis' own, Babes In Toyland. A band that featured L7's Jennifer Finch and the always disagreeable Courtney Love in the early part of its existence, the group would eventually settle into one of the most powerful trios in the history of music. Though they only released a pair of EP's and three full length records over their decade-long career, they remain some of the most unsettling and influential albums on the era. Pre-dating the first release from Hole by well over two years, it is Babes In Toyland's 1989 debut record, Spanking Machine, that stands as a turning point in female-based rock, and retains its impact and relevance more than twenty years after its initial release.

The sound found on Spanking Machine is startlingly raw, and the urgency within the music is often unnerving. This is due in large part to the amazing production work of Seattle-based legend, Jack Endino. Having already worked EP's and full length released for the likes of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and the aforementioned Nirvana, Endino is undoubtedly as responsible for the so-called "Seattle sound" as any musician with whom he worked. On Spanking Machine, he is able to perfectly and clearly present the almost out of control sound that the band creates, and he guides them to the ideal balance between volume, distortion, and musicianship. While their second full length, 1992' Fontanelle may be a bit more commercially accessible, it is this album where the unbridled fury that makes the music of Babes In Toyland so stunning is brilliantly displayed. Truth be told, they not only beat Hole to the punch insofar as release date is concerned, but they are far superior in their execution of the sound and style that is shared between the groups. After experiencing Spanking Machine, one can clearly hear the influences that the record had on bands like 7 Year Bitch, Angelica, and Die Cheerleader among a host of many others. The manner in which Babes In Toyland go about their heavy, agitated brand of hardcore rock is truly incredible, and the fact that it is all performed by only three musicians makes the music even more amazing.

The music itself is a unique blend of punk and hardcore, yet there is also a strange twist of glam-rock styling within the music as well. The instruments and energy are all turned up to the maximum, yet the volume is very much in control, and this is how Babes In Toyland avoids becoming just reckless noise and retain their musicality. Easily one of the most important female figures in the history of music, band founder and guitarist Kat Bjelland is absolutely stunning throughout Spanking Machine. Brilliantly blending the aggression of the punk sound with what can only be called a style and tone reminiscent of mid-60's surf rock, Bjelland truly has a sound all of her own. Seamlessly switching from crushing chords to perfectly toned, staccato patterns, Bjelland is simply stunning throughout the entire album. As the rumor goes, Michelle Leon learned to play bass AFTER joining the band. Apparently, Bjelland felt that Leon's inexperience with the instrument would foster more creativity and experimentation on the part of Leon. Regardless of the truth of the situation, Leon is absolutely stellar throughout Spanking Machine, and her ability to make these angry, pulverizing songs swing is a testament to her fantastic playing. Leon left the band in 1992, following the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cole. Paving the way for countless followers, drummer Lori Barbero delivers a truly awe-inspiring performance on Spanking Machine. With her sound coming off as sometimes more hollow and bouncy as on "Boto(w)rap," yet more often very dry and powerful, she is easily one of the most talented drummers of the era. It is very much her playing that drives the songs to the border of chaos, yet it is simultaneously her drumming that keeps it from falling into an unorganized mess. Regardless of their gender, the trio of musicians in Babes In Toyland forever altered the musical landscape with their fantastic playing throughout Spanking Machine.

Along with her superb guitar playing, Kat Bjelland also handles nearly all of the vocal duties, as well as being the bands' primary song writer. Constantly shifting from a spoken style to screaming to more formal singing, few artists have been able to capture such honest emotion as is found on every song she sings. Brilliantly delivering her words with an aggressive, venomous style, Bjelleand takes the no-holds-barred approach of Patti Smith and injects it with a more forceful feminist spirit that still serves as the inspiration for countless performers to this day. Lyrically, Bjelland is just as much of a pioneer as her singing style, as her lyrics are some of the most brutal, blunt, and honest lyrics ever written, and they were lightyears ahead of their time. Stunning lines like, "...blind your mind, so tears will melt...numb the place where pain is..." and "...she screams sweet hell in her old white nightie, with rips and tears she's too aware...see through big black bombs that explode on chickens, all the while she thickens..."m stand as some of the most hauntingly poetic words ever written. Presenting some of the most aggressive and unforgiving commentaries on gender relations and the role of women, many of the lyrics are hauntingly dark, yet there have been few times in history where one can find such heartfelt, and perhaps more to the point, accurate words. Nearly every lyric found on Spanking Machine comes off equally as relevant and powerful as it did upon its initial release, and this is largely due to the phenomenal vocal delivery and unsettlingly honest lyrics delivered by Kat Bjelland.

For whatever reason, most people cite a handful of horrid late 1990's pop acts as the beginning of the "girl power" movement, but the reality is, what began in the 1970's was kicked into high gear as the 1980's came to a close. Proving that women could play just as hard (if not harder) than their male counterparts, Babes In Toyland remain a cornerstone in the rise of "riot grrrl" music, and stand as one of the most influential bands in the overall picture of the hardcore genre. The stunning rhythm section of Barbero and Leon play absolutely flawlessly throughout all of Spanking Machine, and the urgency with which they play is one of the many aspects that makes the album so fantastic. Truly one of the most important figures in female-fronted rock music as well as the wave of feminism that began in the early 1990's, Kat Bjelland is undoubtedly one of the most integral figures of her generation. Whether it is her crushing guitar work, her powerhouse vocals, or her amazingly evocative lyrics, she remains a true icon within the history of music. It is almost impossible to name all of the bands that have taken from the sound and style of Babes In Toyland, and due to this, it is similarly difficult to picture the musical landscape without their presence. Sadly, Babes In Toyland only recorded a handful of records during their decade long career, but their 1989 debut, Spanking Machine, remains one of the most mighty and magnificent albums ever recorded, and unlike other bands of the style that found more commercial success (read as: Hole), the influence of both the band and album continue to inspire and shape bands to this day.

Standout tracks: "He's My Thing," "Vomit Heart," and "Lashes."

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