Beating Franz Nicolay and Sleater-Kinney to the punch of first great album of 2015 was San Mateo’s decade-old frenetic guitar rockers Shinobu. Shinobu’s last full-length came out in 2009 and in the meantime lead singer and guitarist Morgan Herrell played and sang in Hard Girls, Classics of Love, the Bruce Lee Band, made a solo EP and produced a show about a Dog Cop on CBS. Good on him. He’s one of my favorite singers and it’s awesome to hear him get 11 songs all to himself again.
Herrell & co. demoed these songs in tons of exotic locations–percussion on the ancient tsunami stones of Japan, guitars in the frozen vineyards of New Jersey to achieve that snakey crystalline sound they’re known for–before returning to San Mateo’s famed Musée du French Revolution to record the final product. This is where the record gets its name. Thermidor is a summer month in the French Republican Calendar, the calendar designed by revolutionaries to remove religious and royalist influences from the daily lives of the public. It was used from 1793-1805. The 9th day of Thermidor in 1794 (9 Thermidor) endures in history as the day Robespierre and other revolutionary leaders were arrested and guillotined. Afterwards France gradually returned to its pre-Revolutionary state. These themes terrorize 10 Thermidor, the first day of conservative counter-revolution. In “The Void,” to the tune of guitars sharp enough to slice through your neck, Herrell tells the story of attending the closing party of a bar called The Void:
And inside people talked round and round
about politics and art
and coupons that you can get for free.
But they only give them out
so that you’ll spend more.
And then this guy started talking to me.
“If I could make you believe
that I believed in something
would you believe in me?
Because I don’t like money
and I lost my faith
and I couldn’t get into the Dead C
and it’s so easy
to ignore someone who doesn’t
have a cause,
because the cause is all we’re dying to see,
the cause distracts you from
the Void that’s there
in every moment
and in every thing.”
The song slows to a plea during that last verse and soon stops altogether save for a few stray cosmic notes…settling into a void…prodding the listener with existential boredom and agitation and silence…before exploding once more into a chant both affirmational and in denial that places you ecstatically in the middle of the huge crowd at the fictional Void.
Throughout the album, you get all the touchstones of a great Shinobu release: those searing solos and frenzied compositions; those smart lyrics; and on each album one instrument is played by a wolf–but you never know which one!
“These are haunted times,” Herrell sings in the companion songs “9 Thermidor” and “10 Thermidor.” Every ghost story needs a Zelda Rubinstein. Shinobu plays the part perfectly. Essential Listening going forth into this gray and grave year.