THE EMERALD CITY looks beautiful from afar. So beautiful, in fact, that we're willing to run through the forbidden fields, get stoned on poppies, and be hauled off to the Wicked Witch's castle by hideous flying monkeys.

The music business is something of an Emerald City. It is enormous, polished, and grand; its color scheme is pure green. It glitters on the horizon of adolescence as an irresistible lure to those trapped in the years between innocence and cynicism. As kids, we began to buy the myth of the rock star as we began to buy records produced in that Emerald City. And I suspect we all had moments standing before the mirror, imagining an arena of fans or a chartered airplane waiting to take us away from the endless days of algebra and hormones.

If the Oz analogy is to hold, we, each of us, must be Dorothy, virginal and naive, approaching the city with awe and reverence, certain in the belief that its Wizard can whisk us back to our personal Nirvana. But at some point, someone pulls back the curtain and reveals a pathetic old man toggling switches and levers, trying to put on the same show that has worked so well for so many years. Steve Albini pulls back the curtain.

Since the early '80s, first in the seminal post-punk band Big Black, then with Rapeman and now Shellac, Albini has written vital, vibrant, and sonically violent music of the highest order. It's both visceral and cerebral, and Albini is particularly adept not only at writing and performing honest music, but also at recording the stuff.

Check your CD collection. If you have PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, Nirvana's In Utero, the Breeders' Pod, or the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, you have an album recorded by Steve Albini. If anyone else had chosen the microphones, twiddled the knobs, and set the equalizers, they'd be listed as producer of those records. But Albini resists the term producer, preferring to be given credit for recording, not producing, other artists' work.

It is a detail of semantics, but for Albini, it's important. It reveals the aspect of his character that is most fascinating; in the inherently phony universe of the music business, where souls are too often cashed in or not even considered in the sinister negotiations, Albini chooses words as carefully as he chooses projects and products worthy of carrying his name. He seems to have a code, and he seems to live by it. Having never met the man, I can't presume to explain his motives. But from my perspective as music aficionado and critic, I have long admired Albini for resisting compromise and temptation in an effort to circumvent the traps laid out by the music business designed to snare those like him.

He has, for at least 16 years, been immersed in making records. He has recorded the work of countless artists. Those mentioned above might be among the more famous, but to his credit, Albini has recorded thousands of albums by bands whose work he respects, with little regard for their commercial appeal. It is a standard he applies to his own band as well.

Shellac's full-length debut, At Action Park (Touch and Go, 1994), was released first on vinyl then, weeks later, on cassette and CD. I stood in the record store, holding the 12-inch object with a sense of tactile awe. "Pressed into 165 grams of virgin dye-blackened vinyl" read the silkscreened, fold-out cardboard sleeve. It felt the way a record was supposed to feel, precious and heavy, and sounded the way a record was supposed to sound, precious and heavy.

Shellac songs are full of short stops, pulses of aggression set in fields of rhythm. It's all unpredictable. The listener is kept off-balance, yet engaged. Albini speaks, screams, and occasionally sings, but I've never found his lyrics, often buried in the mix, a focal point of his work. Loud music can fall so easily into clichés of unwarranted angst and unearned anger, but Shellac records offer too much thought lingering beneath each passage to sound familiar or boring.

Albini has a reputation for being cantankerous and cranky, but I suspect that's the result of having high standards, clear ideas, and the hard-earned luxury of control. If you're right often enough, people who are fundamentally wrong get bitchy about it. With Bob Weston (formerly of Volcano Suns, himself a producer of albums by Sebadoh and Archers of Loaf, among others) and Todd Trainer, Albini challenges the rock-star myth and simply creates good music under the name Shellac.

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