College rock just ain’t what it used to be. For one, nobody calls it college rock anymore. But in a more literal way, doing time in the dorms (or at least living within signal range of a college radio station) is no longer mandatory to expand your musical horizons. However, before the Internet made everything available to everyone at anytime, college towns were the only places outside of large urban areas where independent music could flourish.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a mid-sized town that’s home to the University of North Carolina. It’s also home to one of America’s most celebrated underground music scenes. Sonic Youth wrote a song called “Chapel Hill.” Merge Records lives there. Superchunk and Archers of Loaf were born there. And, in 1989, Bitch Magnet, a band that formed in another vibrant college-town scene in Oberlin, Ohio, moved there.
Bitch Magnet could not have come from anywhere but a college town in the ’80s. The weird and unique way that the band merged hardcore velocity and volume with complex dynamics and melodies was a textbook (ahem) result of the clash of brains and brawn that occurs when smart punk kids find themselves surrounded by fellow smart punks who are suddenly immersed in a new world of arts, philosophy and bigger record collections.
The band’s 1988 EP debut, Star Booty, was recorded in Oberlin, and it’s all sinew and mumbly rage. However, when the band recorded their first full-length, Umber, in 1989, they were not only ensconced in the blossoming Chapel Hill scene, but they also had found a way to meld the forcefulness of their live performances with the increasing density of their song structures. The album would become a foundational article for the emerging math-rock subgenre (along with the output of Slint and Bastro, two bands with whom Bitch Magnet’s history is intertwined), but it rocks far harder than any other album that’s been slotted into that classification.
By the time Bitch Magnet recorded their final album, Ben Hur, with Steve Albini in 1990, its sound had become both darker and weirder than it had been on either of the previous two albums, and if Umber was a foundation for math-rock, Ben Hur was a star-chart for the genre’s possibilities. Alas, the band was not long for the world; Bitch Magnet would break up later that year, with leader Sooyoung Park going on to form Seam (with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk) and guitarist Jon Fine playing in several other bands (including Don Caballero) before eventually becoming a media critic of some renown (he has written for for Businessweek).
Three albums in three years and multiple tours playing in front of a tiny but intensely devoted following – that’s the stuff that indie-rock legends are made of. Although Bitch Magnet achieved little widespread recognition while the band was active, the years have been incredibly kind to their musical legacy. The roadmap the band laid out onUmber and Ben Hur has been followed by scores of other, more successful acts, almost all of whom are effusive in their name-checking praise.
This week, Temporary Residence Ltd. will release a long-overdue reissue of all of the band’s recorded work in a tidy and spartan three-CD package, and the group is playing a handful of reunion shows. In all likelihood, the band will meet with considerably more attention this time around. Maybe your local college radio station will even give them a spin this time.
First appeared November 17, 20122 in Orlando Weekly.