Manchester Albert Hall
29th Nov 2013
This is no normal gig.
But then this is no normal band.
Slint have been breaking the rules since they came out of the mess of the Louisville post-hardcore scene in the mid-eighties with their erratic yet brilliant debut Tweez. Formed out of the ashes of proto-Hüsker Dü crew Squirrel Bait they slowed the whole electric assault thing down and created a beautiful new landscape that lost none of its power and emotional skree in its stark and startling beauty. In Manchester they underlined their timeless power, as John Robb reports.
No fancy lighting, no stage show, no showbiz – just the music stripped down and exposed. Slint make no concessions to the razzmatazz and let their music do the talking and sometimes the shouting. Their set tonight is a mix of songs from the groundbreaking and influential Spiderland album and its underrated predecessor Tweez, all given a chance to breathe.
Tweez, thank fuck, may not have been perfect (whatever perfect is … and its so-called imperfections could well be its genius) but they were exploring new territory and reinventing the template at the time with Steve Albini as their guide. You can hear the suffocating sound of the live room that reminds me of the cellar of Albini’s house at the time, where he recorded bands in what was effectively the local studio. The early Albini recording method was slightly different to his current assault and actually included some subtle effects like chorus on the vocals and odd juxtapositions of instruments leaping out of the mix for dramatic effect, but still retained a lot of the use of natural room sound – a key Albini signifier.
It’s always odd for me to revisit these early Albini recordings because my band, the Membranes, recorded with Steve at the same time in 1987 as he was getting off the ground with Slint and Urge Overkill and just as he was starting on the Pixies, and the room sounds on the Slint tracks take me right back there into the concrete bunker of the cellar of his downtown Evanston house with the mixing desk on a table in the upstairs back room and a huge furry cat nestling amongst the hooks of surgical sex appendages and amusingly sick magazines.
Centuries later and Slint are a very different sort of electricity – their follow-up Spiderland album has become one of the staples of influence in post-hardcore and beyond before they disappeared for years. They returned as unlikely heroes in the new noisescape and tonight, in the fantastic Albert Hall in Manchester – a converted 1500 capacity old church complete with stained glass windows and dusty biblical foreboding that add to the songs dank, dark, atmospheres, they are on fire.
Peering at the stage set up before the gig you already know that this no rock ‘n’ roll show … the amps and kit are hemmed at the back of the stage, as far away from the audience as possible, and the vocal mic is placed stage side looking sideways across the stage avoiding any kind of eye contact.
The band shuffle onto the stage with a studied indifference, pick up their instruments and stand there poised, Britt Walford holds his drum sticks in mid-air and it’s a fantastic and probably quite unintentional piece of holding the tension, before they slide into For Dinner from their acclaimed landscape changing Spiderland album.
The song builds slowly around the enveloping bass with the twin guitars looping against each other, building the song into a hypnotic and dank and dark atmosphere that the ghost of Ian Curtis floating around these Victorian Mancunian halls would definitely approve of.
It’s kind of curious being sat here in the dark heart of Mancunian post-punk of all those decades ago, with Rafters two blocks away where Joy Division played such key gigs and the Free Trade Hall across the road where the Sex Pistols played those two key shows all those years ago sparking the great descendants of tonight’s soundtrack. This is the heart of the heartland, the starting point arguably of all this kind of noise and Slint were key players in it, redefining it in the late eighties for the next generation and creating the escape route for hardcore into far more textured pastures.
The atmosphere now set, Slint follow-up with Breadcrumb Trail which is one of their classic songs with an added heaviness to its pulsating dynamic, before engaging and hypnotising with a set that mixes their two albums into one seamless whole, doing justice to the often overlooked Tweez debut and placing it onto an equal footing with the acclaimed Spiderland.
Their music is frozen in time and totally justifies its revisiting – bands like Slint were so far in the future in the first place that they can never seem dated, and oddly they’re still ahead of the game even now.
Their music now seems to be more powerful but with an increased dynamic – the loud bits are loud, but the entwining sinister darkness of the quiet sections has a raw beauty that is hypnotic and beguiling.
It’s even more honed down than years ago.
The barely audible vocals are submerged in the mix adding a layer of mystery to the sometimes spoken, sometimes screeched voice, the guitars switch from deliciously heavy riffing to spidery arpeggios that entwine with each other in the post-punk keynote staple of everyone playing lead at once. Meanwhile the drums are startling – those fractured counter rhythms and stripped down, neo-jazz, hardcore clanking blats to the fore that so much defines these bands.
Reforming occasionally, Slint operate under their own rules. They play when they feel like it and make no concessions to performance. The music does the talking and sometimes the shouting – getting the audience to nod their heads righteously with their beards trembling in delight at the finely chiselled, electric aesthetic of the band.
It’s a long way from their roots in the Husker Du flavoured Squirrel Bait in the mid 80s who were part of the Homestead label coterie of bands when, many centuries ago my band the Membranes pitched up in Lousiville Kentucky on one of those meandering, never ending American tours we used to do when we were signed to the label and hung out with the band and their fellow droogs in the swampy Deep South…
We were there for a week- a couple of gigs and some down time. It was a fantastic week- we hit town just when a whole mini scene was erupting and hung out with Squirrel Bait and future Bastro member David Grubbs and David Pajo and other faces in the town. I dimly remember them taking us to this great blues bar in some forlorn district of the city and we watched in awe as genuine old blues men cranked the high voltage electric in the seedy bar. We swapped records and mad stories and then a year later our paths crossed again at Steve Albini’s place in Chicago where Steve was recording that Membranes album and at the same time was doing the Slint album which he played tracks from – it sounded startling – they had stretched the loud and quiet into a new style of music which was going to have a big impact.
The Slint guys would come around Albini’s house, they all wore fedoras like Steve did and they all had the same arcane and darkly funny sense of humour, there was a criss crossing of attitudes and ideas going on in Evanston that in the decades to come would pretty well create the foundation for what we could lazily call ATP culture.
Live in 2013 Slint are, like those strange insects, perfectly frozen in amber- what was once experimental is now conventional as Mark Smith once snarled, but this does not dilute their power.
As crescendo follows meandering hypnotic groove the band climax and leave the stage to the hum of Rhoda. There is no encore. No point. The climax has been reached. There is nowhere left to go. Perfection.
Slint set list:
- For Dinner…
- Breadcrumb Trail
- Nosferatu Man
- Don, Aman
- Good Morning, Captain