Breadwinner – The Burner

Instrumental Funeral
The Making of Breadwinner’s The Burner

At just around 20 minutes of music, Breadwinner’s only full-length is the physical embodiment of the old showbiz maxim “always leave them wanting more.” Aside from an errant cover of the Birthday Party’s “Yard,” the nine perfectly imperfect songs on The Burner are all there are and all there ever will be of the band that paired the boundless intensity of punk with the rhythmic complexity of King Crimson and birthed an entirely new genre: math rock.

Rosy retrospection reveals Breadwinner to be the work of true iconoclasts. When you listen to the trio’s recorded output, you can literally hear guitarist Pen Rollings, bassist Bobby Donne and drummer Chris Farmer dismantling convention with stretched chords and mutant time signatures. By the time Merge released the posthumous compilation The Burner in 1994, math rock was not only well-established with releases from contemporaries like Slint and Polvo (as well as early-adopters like Don Caballero and Shellac), but also getting ready to mutate into even more metallic directions with acts like Botch and the Dillinger Escape Plan.

Watching Breadwinner level the room in a smoke-filled, 500-capacity venue is probably the best way to experience the band’s music, but alas, we have only a few YouTube videos to capture the ferocity of their live performances. Which leaves us with listening to the songs on The Burner in sequence as the preferred way to take it all in, like a roller coaster ride with a series of hairpin turns, presenting Breadwinner constantly in motion and passing kinetic energy from one song to the next. This also happens to be the chronological order in which the songs—originally released on a series of 7-inch singles—were recorded, making The Burner a marriage of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

Thanks to the band’s critically short 18-month lifespan, Breadwinner never really had a chance to build a national following. According to Donne, they only played shows as far west as Chicago, as far north as Boston and no further south than Chapel Hill/Raleigh. But all three of the band’s members have remained hometown heroes in Richmond, where Breadwinner have always been spoken of in hushed and reverent tones, along with Rollings’ abrasive hardcore act Honor Role and Butterglove, the bridge between Honor Role and Breadwinner.

Aside from the opener “Tourette’s,” Breadwinner remained a largely instrumental act, which makes The Burner an outlier in the Decibel Hall of Fame. It’s also one of the shortest releases we’ve inducted (edging Plague Soundscapes by the Locust), and probably the only LP that takes on the practical form of an album, but was never intended as such. That said, we make the rules, and we can bend ’em as we please. And it’s not a stretch when you crank shit-hot tracks like “Kisses Men on the Mouth on the Mountain” and “Mac’s Oranges” and hear that sound continuing to reverberate in diverse acts like Mastodon, Meshuggah and KEN Mode. If you know, you know.

Need more classic Breadwinner? To read the entire seven-page story, featuring interviews with the members who performed on The Burner, purchase the print issue from our store, or digitally via our app for iPhone/iPad or Android.