Steve Albini and the Hardest Drum Break of All Time

Steve Albini and the Hardest Drum Break of All Time
Image via Mix with the Masters

The first drum break I ever truly loved is the one that opens Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks." Thunderous, echoey, swaggering, it rewarded me for sticking around until the last track on the band's blockbuster fourth album, an LP that my mom received for her 13th or 14th birthday, the same beat-up one I spun on an old turntable as a tween.

There were other drum performances that blew my mind back then—Keith Moon's near-constant fills on "Won't Get Fooled Again," Mitch Mitchell's jazz chops on "Manic Depression," and once I finally moved beyond classic rock, Matt Tong's frantic work on Bloc Party's Silent Alarm. But it would be a few years until another single break, an unchanged pattern without a fill to speak of, would stop me in my tracks like "When The Levee Breaks" did. I first heard it about 30 seconds into "Smash Your Head" on Girl Talk's 2006 album Night Ripper, sandwiched between samples of two Young Jeezy songs.

Lacking the tools and knowledge to ID the drum sample, I could only wait and pray that I'd hear it in its original form somewhere else. Salvation came a year later in the Season 3 finale of Lost. By that point, I was a seasoned enough listener to recognize Kurt Cobain's voice when it sneered out of the speakers in a fucked-up Jack Shephard's old pickup truck over those same drums. I'd heard all of Nevermind by that point, and though I only knew one song from In Utero ("Heart-Shaped Box," thanks to Guitar Hero), I was familiar with the album's reputation Nevermind's darker, uglier follow-up. I deduced that those drums must be somewhere on there.

It's the intro of "Scentless Apprentice," track two on In Utero. Like Bonham on "When The Levee Breaks," Dave Grohl's pattern is bass-drum-heavy, stomping out sixteenth notes where most rock drummers would settle for eighths. Also like that Zeppelin song, it sounds great with rapping over it. Like Grohl's most famous performance, the snare flams (when you strike the drum with both sticks, one ever so slightly after the other) betray the funk influence on his playing. But "Scentless Apprentice" has something going for it that none of the above do: Steve Albini.

The "Albini drum sound" is a much-ballyhooed concept, the stuff of pages and pages of r/drums threads. People act like it's a preset, a template of mic placements and EQs used on every one of the thousands of albums that the late musician/producer/engineer laid his fingers on, but if you hear him talk about it himself, it's as variable as any other producer's approach. Sure, the man had his preferences—tracking drums in a concrete stairwell in his Chicago studio and incorporating a ton of the resulting "room sound" being chief among them—but mostly he was just really fucking good at recording drums. He didn't even produce In Utero on his home turf.

On "Scentless Apprentice," notice how Grohl's hi-hats form a crispy crust over the punchy-but-booming bass drum, how you can faintly hear the preemptive whoosh of his sticks rising up then crashing down before every snare hit. It's a bare-bones pattern augmented by little-to-no production frills, but the band add a couple of tasteful sprinkles on top: the way Cobain hits a couple muted strums in the middle of the eight-bar pattern, the way Grohl bashes a tom along with the snare on the final note of the intro to let it ring out before the guitar lead bursts in.

The song's central groove is so all-encompassing that the working title was an onomatopoeia'd version of it ("Chuck Chuck Fo Fuck") before Cobain wrote lyrics. It's a strut, a loogie hocked in someone's face to start a fight.

A fan of Albini's work on albums by the Pixies and the Breeders, Cobain tapped him to produce In Utero as a reaction against Nevermind's overwhelming success. Whereas Butch Vig famously convinced Cobain to multi-track/overdub his vocals and guitars on the latter album, Albini took a much more "live" approach, recording most instrumental takes simultaneously and knocking out the vocals in just a few hours. This, combined with the largely gnarlier songs Cobain wrote for the album, resulted in something much more brash and confrontational than Nevermind.

The "Scentless Apprentice" drums don't sound like the "Then Comes Dudley" drums, which don't sound like the "Boxcar" drums, which don't sound like the "In The Meantime" drums, which definitely don't sound like the "Farewell Transmission" drums. For all of the talk of Albini as such an auteur, he never seemed to bend bands to his will, scratching out their idiosyncrasies in favor of a distinctive sonic palette of his own. He's closely associated with the noisy, punk-indebted side of late '80s/early '90s alt rock—with good reason, as he produced most of that scene's classics—but as time went on, the breadth of his work expanded considerably, better illustrating his flexibility.

There are a million other stunning/heavy/gorgeous/gloriously hideous moments in Albini's massive discography, but the "Scentless Apprentice" break hits me on a primal level, like I'm hearing a beat that cavemen composed for wooly mammoth hunts. Albini would probably give all the credit to Dave Grohl, but when dude attempted a similar intro on "My Hero" a few years later, he sounded less like a kid throwing a tantrum in his bedroom and more like Tommy Lee playing in an empty hockey stadium (no disrespect to The Colour and the Shape producer Gil Norton). There's a tenuous, lightning-in-a-bottle energy that you could never recapture if you spent the rest of your life trying.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #28

Bear1boss - "Unbearable"

Location: Atlanta // Genre: technicolor swag rap // RIYL: 2010 pop-rap filtered through the prism of Lil Uzi Vert // From: "Bubbles," out now

Crypt Sermon - "Glimmers in the Underworld"

Location: Philadelphia // Genre: Epic Doom Metal // RIYL: "Holy Diver" but make it sacrilegious // From: "The Stygian Rose," out 6/14

The Doozers - "5/3"

Location: Detroit // Genre: sunny math rock (99% sure the song title doubles as the time signature) // RIYL: Vampire Weekend if they came up alongside Menomena // From: "Full Length Album," out "Summer 2024"

Evangeline - "You and Me"

Location: L.A. // Genre: folk-rock // RIYL: the music that rolls with credits in mumblecore romcoms with ambiguous endings // From: "When Demigods Go..." EP, out now

Fcukers - "Bon Bon"

Location: NYC // Genre: sleazy electro-pop // RIYL: the year 2012 (generally), Azealia Banks, Snow Strippers

Jadasea - "Inkling"

Location: London // Genre: soft-focus lonely stoner rap // RIYL: Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, MIKE, Earl, but make it British // From: "Too Many Tears," out now

Sour Widows - "Staring Into Heaven/Shining"

Location: Bay Area // Genre: "true bay area alternative rock," per the band // RIYL: Wednesday, things of epic length // From: "Revival Of A Friend," out 6/28

Vayda - "Baby Baby"

Location: Atlanta // Genre: club rap // RIYL: a poppier version of Hook, things of decidedly not-epic length

Track of the Week

RXKNephew - "Money Can't Replace Time"

Location: Rochester, NY // Genre: deranged chipmunk soul // RIYL: Cam'ron, French Montana // From: "Till I'm Dead 2," out 5/31

The recent RXKNephew track that's been getting the most attention is Monday's "What Does BBL Even Mean?", and it's completely obvious why. Despite sharing stylistic similarities with "Money Can't Replace Time," it's more in-line with Neph's viral reputation as a hyper-topical firebrand (if you've never heard his magnum opus "American Tterroristt," do yourself a favor and carve out 10 minutes for that). The fact that the target of his derision is the ongoing(?) Drake/Kendrick beef doesn't hurt.

But like any rapper worth a damn who initially amasses goodwill via comedic exploits, Neph is much deeper than his punchlines. "What Does BBL Even Mean?" is now slated to be included on his upcoming tape, but three days before its release, this much more heartfelt track was announced as the lead single.

Neph still delivers the unruly stream-of-consciousness flow and distinct lack of fucks-given that have made him a cult hero, but this time they're used to more autobiographical ends. As the title suggests, "Money Can't Replace Time" zooms out from the workaday hustle to show how it provides for loved ones: "Every Christmas come around, I pull that shit right out the dirt."

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson