Quarantining The Past: Bitch Magnet’s ‘Ben Hur’

    First, a confession. Bitch Magnet isn’t a ’90s band, per se. And on Quarantining the Past, we tend to deal with bands from the ’90s. So to write about the band’s final album, Ben Hur, may fit since it came out in 1990, but really it’s just a loophole to talk about a great post-hardcore band.

    In another way, though, it’s not. Bitch Magnet put out a great debut EP, 1988’s Star Booty, and two excellent full-lengths, 1989’s Umber and then Ben Hur, so their run was brief, but it also represents one of the best examples of a deeply inspirational sound and aesthetic. If Bitch Magnet wasn’t a ’90s band in chronological terms, it certainly was in spirit. To hear Ben Hur, the band’s unruly swan song, is to catch a glimpse at nearly all the sounds that would make ’90s rock so indelible.

    Bitch Magnet was vocalist/bassist Sooyoung Park, guitarist Jon Fine, and drummer Orestes Morfin, but together the three sounded like so much more than a trio right from the start. On Umber, though, they enlisted Dave Galt on guitar, beefing up their sound into a rippling wall of noise. But for Ben Hur, as a trio again, the band seemed to leave all that punk propulsion behind. Rather than coast down the road, letting the chassis shake and kick off flakes of rust, Ben Hur aims for the ruts and potholes. It’s loud and brash, but it beds down in its noise, gets bogged down in the heaviness of its sound. Bitch Magnet drags you down into it, and the feeling it evokes is dark and shadowy and subterranean, but also sublime.

    Opener “Dragoon” lays the gauntlet down immediately. No three-minutes smash of blistering riffs. Instead, Jon Fine warps guitar phrasings into rumbling, heavily-distorted expanses of sound. Feedback hisses, cymbals clink in the background. Park and Morfin join in on the crashing chords, creating a dark space that their previous work didn’t have. From there, the song churns through nine minutes of squalling, weighty rock. The songs yaws back and forth between punishing crunch and moody, tumbling riffs. It’s a massive song, the band’s biggest statement, but also a hinge from the brighter power of the previous albums to the more sinister tones of Ben Hur.

    But as much as Bitch Magnet plays like prototypical post-hardcore — check the fiery back-and-forth of “Valmead” for evidence — there’s something more complicated, more far reaching about the band’s sound. What makes Bitch Magnet a great ’90s band is that it signaled so many different sounds to come. That’s not to say these guys were the only ones doing this, but they are part (and perhaps one of the best ones) of a group of independent bands that influenced all the band’s we would come to know a bit better in the year’s that followed their break up. “Ducks and Drakes” plays like a beefed-up version of slowcore acts like Codeine or Bedhead, or a sharper take on the expansive brood-rock of Come. “Lookin’ at the Devil” nods to the moody angles of Polvo. “Crescent” sounds an awful lot like Foolish-era Superchunk — and Park did go on to start Seam with Mac McCaughan. You can even hear the same sort of dark edge that Nirvana pulled from the Melvins on charging numbers like “Gator”.

    The point is that Ben Hur plays like a road map for what’s to come. But before it does that, it succeeds on its own merits. It takes all the bands coiled-up energy from Umber and lets it unravel in new and surprising ways. Perhaps most shocking in all of this is Park’s vocals. Beneath all the layers of hard-hitting guitars and rumble-your-gut bass and Morfin’s dynamic drumming, Park speak-sings (nearly) everything in a whispery monotone. He is the calm center of the storm here, and lets us know that maybe all of this chaos, all of this volatility, is not necessarily about agression. That maybe, instead, all this noise is something more personal, more confessional. That maybe this is how this trio hears beauty.

    Bitch Magnet has, to this point, been an undersold member of the forefathers, the bands that gave us all those indie rock bands we’ve come to know and love. Lucky for us, now Temporary Residence has put Star Booty, Umber, and Ben Hur together (along with some extras and unreleased material) into a 3-disc set that chronicles the progress of the band’s sound. Bitch Magnet was a signpost on the road to a lot of great music, to sounds and textures we still hear and celebrate today, to sounds too vital to fade away, too deeply embedded and lasting to be trends. But, for a moment forget all that and remember this: they were a fucking great rock band. And on Ben Hur, they got lost in their own power, broke down the walls they’d been pushing at all along, but they never forgot their sense of song. Because these guys, for all their volume, weren’t brash noisemakers, not at heart. They were, first and foremost, great songwriters. Behind all this squall, that’s the true power in Ben Hur, the songs themselves, and the legacy they helped build.

    Bitch Magnet is available now from Temporary Residence.