Sometimes it’s very very quiet. Sometimes it’s very very loud. Vocals are either wholly absent or fuzzy and indecipherable. There are abrupt changes of pace. There are no verses or choruses – rather, the music progresses through shifts in mood, tempo and volume. That, in a nutshell, is what listeners can expect to hear from a post-rock band – practitioners of the curious sub-genre of guitar rock that was more or less born with the 1991 release of Spiderland by Slint, a bunch of young men from Louisville, Kentucky.
By the time the album was released they’d already parted company and were heading off to hook up with various oddly named alt-rock bands – Tortoise, The Breeders, Dead Child, Zwan. In recent years, though, the core members – Brian McMahan, David Pajo and Britt Walford – have sporadically reconvened, and this month they’re in the UK, touring to support the release of a new deluxe Spiderland box set; the Electric Brixton was packed with youngish, serious-looking fans. It’s worth noting, before going any further, that the audience listened in respectful near-silence, and that there was barely a camera-phone in sight. Just saying.
The gig got off to a shaky start: there were sound problems – “Breadcrumb Trail” had to be restarted twice as the crew tried to locate the source of a nasty noise. But soon the band, playing here as a five-piece, were in their stride, sounding impressively crunchy. Hearing them play was at times the aural equivalent of noticing the same physical features in parents and their children: ah, so that’s where Mogwai got their shtick; ah, so that’s where it all started for Sigur Rós.
Essentially, Slint’s music is about tension and release; an air of brooding menace permeated their songs, punctuated by episodes of blistering, sweeping, cathartic noise. Words were mostly spoken by McMahan, who also provided some frail sung vocals; on “Washer”, his weedy voice sang, “My head is empty, my toes are warm, I am safe from harm.” Safe? Hah! An explosion of noise ensued.
Slint’s showstopping number is “Good Morning, Captain”, a rare uptempo track played here with admirable precision and brutal clarity, and featuring vintage screaming from McMahan. In the loud bits, it felt as though I was being swept along on waves of exhilarating turbulence. Heads in the crowd nodded.
At the end Slint traipsed off stage rather awkwardly, waving goodbye like kids on a school bus, an odd, sweet, slightly geeky bunch: unlikely progenitors of a whole new musical genre.