For a group that helped lay the foundation for post-rock, Bitch Magnet sure as fuck rocked. Granted, “Dragoon”—the first track of Ben Hur, the outfit’s 1990 swansong—is a 10-minute opus that crams almost every tempo, texture, noise, and dynamic imaginable into a near-orchestral sprawl. In other words, it’s the epitome of post-rock. But where the band’s closest competitor, Slint, subverted the expectation to burn hot and hard, Bitch Magnet was more than happy to pour gas on itself and light a match.
In anticipation of its upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties reunion, Bitch Magnet’s entire discography—including Ben Hur and its predecessors, 1989’s Umber and 1988’s Star Booty—has been reissued in a self-titled, three-disc set. But no amount of remastering, as excellent and long overdue as it is, can supersede the murky, mumbling majesty of songs like Star Booty’s “Carnation” or the cock-rock deconstruction of Umber’s “Goat-Legged Country God.” Singer-bassist Sooyoung Park would go on to form the heart-wrenching but far less raucous Seam with Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan; on Ben Hur tracks like the simmering, melodic “Crescent,” the slide toward a more controlled chaos is even more harrowing than the unfettered bloodletting. The six alternate takes that compose the reissue’s bonus material don’t offer any unheard tunes. They do, however, underscore just how primal yet mathematical Bitch Magnet could be, all while rabidly applying its dissonant, idiosyncratic logic.
As singular as Bitch Magnet’s sound was, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Big Black and Die Kreuzen are strong and obvious influences, and the group’s heavy, skull-peeling abrasion falls almost exactly between the rackets that were emerging then in Seattle and Washington, D.C. But Park and crew uniquely synthesized the dregs of punk, hardcore, and even prog at a time when indie rock was a vast wilderness teeming with ugly chords, untrimmed edges, and an irony born of necessity rather than decadence. If that makes Bitch Magnet a post-rock band, so be it. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the strings to come in.