…and were there ever three more disparate gigs it would be hard for the mind of man to imagine...
The Old Market, Brighton, Tues 12th August
”Like swimming underwater in the darkness
Like walking through an empty house
Speaking to an imaginary audience
And being watched from outside by
Someone without a key”
Though I only belatedly discovered Slint and their 1991 album 'Spiderland', it's still possible to see how transformative they were to the hardcore scene they emerged from. It's not much of an exaggeration to compare them to the effect Joy Division had on British punk a decade earlier. (Though in terms of contemporary sales versus long-term influence they were more like the Velvets. If now acclaimed, the world of the time was not waiting for uncategorisable new music to emerge from Louisville, Kentucky and the line above about an “imaginary audience” - that was to prove prophetic.)
Except the influence only partly correlates. If, as Tony Wilson famously phrased it, Joy Division moved the conversation on from “fuck you” to “I'm fucked”, Slint shifted things from “I'm mad, as in really quite cross” to “I'm mad, as in not all here”. They took a music aimed outward, intent on expressing it's disgust with the world, and turned its focus around. However expansive their soundscapes were, they always sounded like they were really mindscapes.
While much hardcore music was great, that may be partly a factor of the fact there was so much hardcore music. With that much mud, some was always likely to stick to the wall. And at it's worst it did play up to the idealised self-image of the teenager – a noble, uncorrupted outsider, a raging visionary refusing any compromise with the system. Slint found the teenager adrift in a senseless world, fearful yet fascinated, both tempestuous and fragile. However much more 'arty' it was, however it seemed more indirect in expression, it was in it's way a more honest account.
Slint's role in music history has now become to plug the missing link between hardcore and what came to be called post-rock. And, formally at least, this can be borne out. While for example quiet/loud juxtapositions were a staple of music in that era (with the Pixies' Black Francis later complaining of “bozo dynamics”), no-one did it quite like Slint. Their music didn't just the volume so much as explode, like a pinhole camera view bursting into cinemascope. And you can hear that effect all over Mogwai.
But, unlike so much post-rock, Slint were never simply smart or clever. As Drew Daniel said, “one can still detect the malingering presence of metal and hardcore”. ('The Wire' 362, Apr '14) Slint weren't musical polymaths so much as sonic psychopaths. Their music tended to be made up of simple elements thrown into disorienting combinations. Hardcore wasn't the flat ground they left behind when they took off, it stayed part of them and they were happy to leave their roots showing. Listen, for example, to the chugging bassline of 'Nosferatu Man'. And this hardcore bedrock stopped things straying into the opposite teenage cliché – the mawkishness of the lovelorn, the self-pitying life of the trustafarian. The quote from 'Dom Aman up above continues with the lines “He laughed at himself/ He felt he knew what that was”. All identities seemed uncertain.
Two scenarios always come to mind when listening to 'Spiderland', both part-inspired by their preference for mumbled narrative over conventional vocals. Firstly there's the old private eye movies such as 'The Big Sleep', with their deadpan voice-overs as if such flat vocal inflections will somehow impose narrative coherence over a grotesque nightmare, line up the surreal chaos into an orderly set of clues. Those films were of course influenced by expressionism, whose crazily askew angles and sharp light/dark delineations always seem analogous to their music. (Perhaps needless to say 'Nosferatu Man' is named after Murnau's 1922 film.)
But they're also somehow reminiscent of a teenage diary, written not so much as an account of events as an attempt to make a map of the world. The mumbled narratives, as if made of words that can only barely be spoken aloud, make the Spiderland it's spidery handwriting. The sound evokes a still moonlit night, in an open yet private space, some sort of solitary refuge. (Like the quarry pool of the sleeve, only in darkness.) All sounds carry, even the most mumbled vocals or the clattering of the drums. Then, just when your ears are attuned to the small sounding big, the big stuff crashes in...
Some have questioned whether Slint are really a band to see live. Which is in some ways an illustrative question, throwing into relief the way their music is simultaneously expansive and intimate. Certainly there's no live show. The front of the stage is occupied by no-one at all; Brian McMahon narrates from the side of the stage, as though trying to describe the music rather than present it. He stands stiffly at the mike, like he's never got used to the posture. The few words they say to the audience, I was later told by more veteran fans, count as effusive.
And listening to Slint does feel very much like a one-on-one experience, pretty much like reading a diary would. It's reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's description of listening to the Raincoats – you feel like you're eavesdropping, and if they knew you were there it would ruin everything. But in many ways the fact that, seemingly against the odds, the music manages to overcome all that and reach across to everyone makes the gig more of an event. Even today, even after it's been taken up as an influence by so many, it's not really music which fits in anywhere. It's just music which works...
'Breadcrumb Trail', from London...
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Wed 6th August
Last time I managed to catch Wolf Eyes live, four years ago, I called them “the Stooges of noise music”. (Perhaps partly because both hail from Michigan.) And if you thought the Stooges were the Stooges of noise music, then clearly you're yet to experience Wolf Eyes!
Their website states “there is no denying the homemade nuclear war Wolf Eyes has left on music”. And the boys aint' kidding! After rock music long became a corporate brand, something to stick over car ads, the old fuck-you attitude gloriously returns. The music's an eviscerating blast, like one of those ray guns in SF films that reduce you to a skeleton. Intense and exhilarating.
Previously they seemed perfectly pitched between out-there rock and noise music. This time it was like the venn diagrams flipped the other way – they'd lessened the experimental/impro leanings to become a rock band, but still with the sheer abandon of noise. While much noise music just sounds like rock without the tunes, Wolf Eyes throw in just enough structure to gain some traction. The combination becomes virtuous, like a cocktail drug. Brighton Noise exulted “they’ve started playing actual 'songs' and they’re really good at it!” (Though newbies may want to note those inverted commas. Wembley Arena is still some way away.)
As if by way of contrast, after three support acts all solo turns, they stride on almost as a parody of a band-as-gang – sporting cut-off denim and indoor shades. For the most part the drummer played what I'm reliably informed is called a “box of tricks”, some dial-sprouting gizmo slung at his hip, meaning they effectively line up and face the audience off. I think we probably blinked first.
A while ago I quoted Mark E Smith's classic line “R+R as primal scream”. It's not so much you can't hear the words in all the cacophony, as you imagine they must have somehow gone beyond words – broken through into primitive shards of sound. It was like a jigsaw in reverse - a picture getting chopped into bits then, instead of being boxed, getting slung in your face. As said over the very different Sigur Ros, the less you're able to make out the words the more significance they take on in your mind.
For all their recent discoveries of the rudiments of song structure, they're still savvy enough to keep it to a relatively short set. It becomes a sudden jolt to the senses, a short sharp shock. Certainly, after buying a CD from their last show I found I didn't really play it much. It's a visceral experience best undergone live. And they still punctuated proceedings with a longer, more lumbering piece. If you want to keep with the Stooges analogies, it would have been their 'We Will Fall'.
Through all this sonic assault, some guy still managed to take notes as they were playing. Mate, that's even nerdier than me!
Doing their stuff in Rome...
MARTIN SIMPSON + DOM FLEMONS
Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Fri 25th July
Martin Simpson's guitar-playing and songwriting has given him one of those impeccable English folk pedigrees, a CV spattered with names like June Tabor and the Albion Band. A reliable source of gossip claims he's been nominated for the Radio Two Folk Awards a record-breaking twenty-three times.
But as if all that wasn't enough, he also led a kind of double life. For the folk-tuned Englishman is part dude, having spent many years in America soaking up the traditional music that lies State-side. Indeed his own website emphasises how his career has “combined the diverse elements of British, Afro-American and old-timey music”.
Which of course is what you might expect. After all, what's in that term 'pedigree'? People talk about folk styles as if they're putting dogs in for Crufts, proud of how they've preserved their uncontaminated breed. And that's nothing but nonsense. Folk has always lived in the cross-breeds, in the inter-changes. Folk purists can almost end up spouting the old right-wing saw about migration destroying culture. While what migration actually does is vitalise culture. Popular culture works like water. It always tries to reach the lowest level, and cover the widest area it possibly can. it doesn't take to being siloed up. Try to pen it and it will respond by trying to burst those banks. Seriously, how many folk songs are there about itinerants and restless wanderers? Compared to the number about those who stood in one place and refused to move? And the mass migration from Europe to America is a classic case in point. Think of the way English folk tunes resurfaced reworked in Bob Dylan tracks.
And as if to prove this point, Simpson is this night performing with Dom Flemons of American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Sporting braces and a boater hat like he's just stepped from some sheet music illo, broad of shoulder and still broader of smile, Flemons plays off American influences against Simpson's English like the great tradition of call-and-response. He casually yet significantly calls the Atlantic “the pond”. The opening number, a cheery crowd-warmer on the popular subject of death by syphillis, segues from Simpson' English version to Flemon's American.
What follows is a whistlestop tour of cross-Atlantic folk history including - but not limited to - black performers performing in blackface, the effects of the American Civil War on the Manchester garment industry and vowel habits among southern Americans. While Simpson largely sticks to guitar and banjo, Flemons plays everything including - but not limited to - the electric kettle. (At which point Simpson instigates the crowd to cry “Judas!” at him. But it wasn't plugged in, so technically it's still okay.) For all this instrumental eclecticism, however, I may well have enjoyed most the point where they both played banjo. The banjo has a surprisingly spiky sound, given its hokey reputation.
At times you feel like they have stored in their heads not so much a great old songbook as a whole era where music was protean, before the rulebook had been written and you could pull a song together out of anything you chose. Which leads to a night of great highlights.
However... I take the point, of course I do, that authenticity in this music is naught but fool's gold, and that humour was a perpetual element. The harder that people's lives were in those times, the less they wanted songs that simply rubbed those hardships in. And Flemon's adoption of the role of Simpson's comic foil was often effective, like they were the Chuck D and Flavour Flav of folk. But for my taste there was perhaps just a little too much leaning towards music hall and show tunes. It became like a meal more composed of entrees and desserts than the actual meal part.
Yet even if that caveat preventing me from finding this a great gig, it was still well worth attending.
Given the double-act nature, we really need both a Simpson and a Flemons clip. And before you ask whether the Ropetackle has been enlarged recently, these are from Womad...