Slint in The Button Factory, Dublin, on August 19th 2014
There are certain bands whose influence has been so profound that the weight of expectation, particularly after a return from a lengthy absence, can prove difficult to live up to. Tonight’s headliners hailed from Louisville, Kentucky, a bunch of kids who loved hardcore and formed bands. From Squirrel Bait and Maurice eventually grew Slint, whose second album, ‘Spiderland’, slowly grew in stature from its inception to become widely acknowledged as the progenitor of post-rock.
A departure from the more abrasive Steve Albini-produce ‘Tweez’ two years previous, ‘Spiderland’ saw the band refine their technique, creating an album that has influenced myriad bands despite slipping through the cracks on its release in 1991. Slint broke up the following year.
They reformed briefly in 2005, and performed ‘Spiderland’ at ATP in 2007, playing sporadically since. While their festival shows have garnered praise and appreciation for a band that never fully got their dues, it is in a smaller setting that the album’s meticulously crafted songs can be fully appreciated.
Slint’s stage presence is unassuming, uncharismatic some have even suggested. While singer and guitarist Brian McMahon is at times nervy and tense, at others unfettered and primally screaming from his sidestage microphone, Dave Pajo on the far side of the stage is a more stoic, rooted presence. Britt Walford on drums, the third of the remaining original members, is a study in skill, restraint and pained concentration; the primary driver of those fractured time signatures with fragile, carefully executed hi-hat work and sporadically punched snare cracks marking out the directional and tonal changes within the songs.
The ‘Spiderland’ material is where they are at their most powerful – the bludgeoning instrumental finale of Nosferatu Man; McMahon, coiled and bouncing on his toes on Breadcrumb Trail, seemingly about to erupt yet holding back; the three guitar assault on Washer, delicate beauty at first, and causing pivoting torsos in the crowd at the song’s crescendo.
The three original members have been joined in recent years by two touring musicians. Bass player Matt Jencik is solid, but somehow outside of it all, save for his tension-breaking Iron Man interjection during one of many between-song silences. An enigmatic slinger at the rear takes on the extra guitar duties, opting to hang back seated in the shadows.
When Walford comes stage front from behind the kit to join Pajo on guitar for Don, Aman, the song’s most startling moment comes not from the two seated guitarists, or McMahon breathing lyrics over their shoulder, but from the shadowy hunched figure scratching out the song’s final ever-deafening flourish.
In comparison, the pre-‘Spiderland’ material is relatively straight-ahead, but no less intense, and Ron, set closer Pam, and the one-song encore of Rhoda are particularly tight, coarse and feedback laden. “I hope not very many of you were in Belfast last night. We had fun…we’re playing the same set though” McMahon informs us after the opener, Glenn. It’s a set they’ve been playing a while now, songs they’ve been playing for years, all two albums and an EP’s worth. It shows; not in the sense that it’s a band going through the motions for the nth time, but in the precision in which the nuances and intricacies of ‘Spiderland’s sublime ebbs and flows are executed.
Good Morning, Captain rounds off the ‘Spiderland’ selection of the set, with McMahon intoning, hand in pocket, as their most famous song gradually cranks up to the inevitable, and Walford’s understated drumming bridges that moment from pre-ignition to launch into McMahon’s “I miss you!” howl. Distortion-heavy guitars bolster the statement, and a final whine of feedback drones on into abrupt silence as Pajo steps on his guitar pedal and calls it to a close.
Seeing the band up close and personal gives a renewed appreciation of the ‘Spiderland’ material particularly, the claustrophobic intensity of its tracks still capable of gut-wrenching emotion despite the slew of imitators and champions that have arisen and fallen in its wake. Stage presence isn’t just measured in physicality.