A live album can be many things: a candid snapshot, a footnote to a scene, or even just a thrifty alternative to studio time. Antlers, a collection of live Bastro recordings from 1991, is the rarest kind of live album: it illuminates a side of the band that, in turn, casts their previous work in a new light as well.“1991 has been called the year that punk broke. Some of it broke into the mainstream, but some broke into more irregular shards.” David Grubbs’s observation, from the liner notes to Antlers, could also describe the varied musical paths that led from his former band Squirrel Bait to the disparate ’90s groups he and his ex-bandmates went on to found: Slint, Palace Brothers, King Kong, Bitch Magnet, the For Carnation, Tortoise, and of course, Bastro.
Among these “irregular shards,” Bastro was in a sense the most irregular. Drummer John McEntire, bassist Clark Johnson (later replaced by Bundy Brown), and singer/guitarist and principal songwriter Grubbs deconstructed Squirrel Bait’s fury and melodicism, virtually pitting them against one another. The band attenuated its tightly-packed songs with influences from free jazz (McEntire’s inhuman drumming propelled a live cover of Albert Ayler’s “Truth is Marching In,”) as well as avant-garde art music. (Grubbs had studied piano and was a fan of Morton Feldman; he split his time between the band and his doctoral work on John Cage at the University of Chicago.)
The evolution was quick. The Big Black-influenced Rode Hard and Put Up Wet EP (1988), recorded before McEntire joined the band, sounded a bit undercooked. (Interestingly enough, the misstep of employing a drum machine was one that Midwest contemporaries the Jesus Lizard and Flour also struggled against on their respective debuts.) With the addition of McEntire, Bastro’s 1989 album Diablo Guapo blew by in a 26-minute hardcore firestorm that was invigorating, if difficult to process. The band’s stylistic ambitions finally gelled on Sing the Troubled Beast (1990), the band’s swan song: an organic, kinetic, engaging album that, like Slint’s Spiderland, showed that “post-rock” was capable of heart as well as the requisite balls/brains.
Antlers documents the period after Troubled Beast that marked the zenith of the band's chemistry and chops. Shortly thereafter, they reinvented themselves as Gastr Del Sol, their furious live shows giving way to quieter performances of a more experimental tenor.
Snippets of Gastr Del Sol tunes peek through the amplified bombast; the brooding title song is a nascent version of “A Watery Kentucky,” the delicate lead track from The Serpentine Similar, Gastr’s mostly acoustic 1993 debut. Other songs demonstrate the exponential growth in the group’s writing and playing abilities that occurred over the course of a few short years. “Hirscheneck” is a cleaned-and-blown remake of the early tune “Counterrev: Bhutan”; a former working-sketch-of-a-song brought to a dramatic fruition. Alongside the generally mid-fi audio recordings, the enhanced CD also contains Quicktime clips of footage from the band’s 1991 European tour, and the booklet insert offers up thoughtful reminiscences from Grubbs and company. Antlers is drawing board, woodshed, and soundstage – a unique document of a unique band.