Released: 17th May 2019
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The mythos of the Dischord Records band Autoclave is similar to that of one-season-wonder TV shows like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life: Most of the players are discussed in relation to the more mainstream, but equally beloved, work they’ve done since. More importantly, despite their relative obscurity while active, their appeal has lasted decades longer than the band’s actual lifespan. Autoclave never released a debut album, but rather two EPs that were eventually compiled in a self-titled CD-only release in 1997. Now, for the first time, Dischord has remastered and reissued that compilation (with a rearranged tracklist) on vinyl.
Fronted by guitarist Mary Timony—now of Helium and Ex Hex fame—and bassist Christina Billotte, later of Slant 6 and Quix*o*tic, the quasi-math-punk quartet operated between 1990 and ’91, mostly during Timony’s visits home to Washington, D.C. while on break from Boston University. Their growth as a band was ultimately stunted by the distance, but they did manage to play shows with now-iconic groups Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, and Beat Happening (all of whom probably could have been considered then-iconic, too—as a pre-Bratmobile Erin Smith wrote in her Action Teen zine about a 1991 show featuring all four bands, “This is your Altamont”).
Despite Autoclave’s close ties to Bratmobile—Billotte once filled in on drums at a Bratmobile show—they were not a riot grrrl band. “We definitely thought of ourselves as female,” Timony said in a 2016 interview with Washingtonian, but Autoclave’s musical ethos seemed light-years from the punk-rock-feminism-rules-okay truisms of riot grrrl proper. Timony is a classically trained guitarist, and Billotte, drummer Melissa Berkoff, and guitarist Nikki Chapman are clearly highly skilled musicians as well. Their lyrics were rarely, if ever, explicitly political, and they tended toward androgyny in their language. Perhaps no name could have suited as well as that of the autoclave, an industrial pressure chamber, to convey their blend of technical precision and urgency.
Billotte articulates that sound on the spastic opener “Dr. Seuss”: “Going down a one-way street/Don’t look back, just keep the beat.” Autoclave’s resistance to categorization as straight punk is due in large part to her voice; low and melodic, Billotte’s singing tends more toward power-pop than conventional punk. (It’s striking now to hear how similarly distinct she and Timony sounded at the time; at first listen, it’s often nearly impossible to tell them apart, especially knowing how much deeper Timony’s voice is now, when performing with Ex Hex.) “Dr. Suess” makes a more inviting opener than that of the 1997 CD, “Go Far,” which though impressive in its musicianship is comparatively impenetrable in its intensity. “I’ll Take You Down” features the kind of noodly-yet-calculated guitars that came to classify Autoclave as math rock-adjacent, as does the only song sung by Chapman, the jagged and winding “Bulls Eye.” The intricate fretwork throughout the album is Timony’s doing, a result of her classical training and a high-school obsession with virtuoso guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
The reissue includes two demos: “Summer,” a Timony-sung track that was originally released via Simple Machine’s 1992 Lever compilation, and “Paper Boy,” a cover of the theme song for the NES game of the same name that somehow manages to avoid excessive cheekiness. Both songs were also released on the 1997 compilation. The reissue doesn’t include any “special” exclusive materials, but considering the difficulty of finding other physical Autoclave memorabilia, the tangible album feels special and exclusive enough.
Regardless of listening medium, the highlight of the Autoclave catalog has always been “Hot Spurr.” The only other song on which Timony sings lead, it’s by far the band’s most leisurely. Autoclave’s chord progressions here are closest to conventional college alt-rock (though they still maintain a slightly off-kilter time signature), and in context sound like the unspooled culmination of Timony’s many tightly woven riffs. Of the titular character, she sings, “He shoots words faster than bullets and you got riddled in the fire.” In some ways, it’s a fitting epitaph for Autoclave itself, a group of whip-smart young women who, though maybe less brash or forthright than their punk contemporaries, were equally biting. With maze-like instrumentation and a proclivity for cryptic lyrics, every Autoclave song feels like a sneak attack.
It’s hard to take a pure critical eye to Autoclave at this point, when the band feels nearly impossible to separate from Billotte’s and especially Timony’s later work. Any criticism of their modest discography could be rebutted by the sheer fact of their ages: It’s impressive how nuanced a group of 20-year-olds were in conveying their anxieties. Autoclave’s music didn’t seem like an outlet for its members’ angst, but an embodiment of it. There is very little breathing room on this album, and sometimes the lyrics are too inscrutable to provide any real catharsis, but that mysteriousness is also what, nearly 30 years on, makes Autoclave far more than a footnote in its members’ careers.