On a map, Italy’s boot looks like it’s trying desperately to kick Sicily away. And why shouldn’t it? Given what little I know about Sicily, life there seems brutish and inhospitable. If you manage to avoid being smothered by a lava flow from Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, you’ll probably get whacked by the Corleone family. Even the square shape of Sicilian pizza suggests rigidity, impenetrability.
So maybe it’s not so surprising that Bellini’s core creative unit, Sicilians Giovanna Cacciola and her husband Agostino Tilotta, make some of the most abrasive and uncompromising noise-rock imaginable. With their former band, Uzeda, the two spiked the Jesus Lizard’s drunken noir with a shot of discordant, Unwound-style racket. That basic template hasn’t changed too much since Uzeda morphed into Bellini in mid-2001. Though Bellini’s 2002 debut, Snowing Sun, was less assaultive than the Uzeda material, it was really a difference of execution, not concept. Bellini complicated its pummel by bringing aboard bassist Matthew Taylor and Don Caballero’s Shiva-like drummer Damon Che, but the emphasis was still on tricky, indomitable grooves and dual-vocal/guitar strangulation.
In the middle of a U.S. tour in 2002, Che had an onstage breakdown and quit the band. You might think losing a star like Che would be a fatal blow, but Small Stones isn’t any weaker without his input. New drummer Alexis Fleisig (ex-Girls Against Boys) fits in perfectly, and the strength of Bellini’s new material proves Che wasn’t integral to the songwriting process to begin with.
The only loss Bellini has suffered is a sense of humor. Whereas Cacciola and Tilotta’s earlier work evinced a sort of giddy perversity, amplified by Steve Albini’s trademark tin-can engineering, much of Small Stones sounds like pure anger. At times, this bleakness works in the band’s favor. On the daunting slow-burners “Room Number Five” and “The Switched Lovers,” the band uses a wider sonic arsenal than ever, since it can concentrate more on texture and power than inducing earaches. Hell, Cacciola occasionally approximates melodies, a sure sign of progress. Still, it’s the kinetic entropy of “The Buffalo Song” that’ll evoke the “fuck, yeah!” response, even if it sounds like it could have been on the band’s previous record.
It’s impressive enough that Cacciola and Tilotta’s sound has remained intact at all over a dozen years and several lineup changes, but the fact that Small Stones successfully updates that sound is downright remarkable. The album doesn’t blow the band’s back-catalogue out of the water, but until the Jesus Lizard reforms or Shellac stops trying to deliberately annoy its audience, Bellini will remain at the top of the Albini-associated scrap-heap.
– September 2005