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‘The songs became stories…’ – Slint and Breadcrumb Trail (2014) Post-rock, Velvet Underground

A documentary film in the course of it ‘documenting’ something can sometimes be a deeply problematic beast, in as much as it gives something a single narrative line (even while it may be conserving the multiple). In one sense it crystalises or settles a space of events and singularities that might include contrastings of seeing / understanding situations and thoughts. It usually ends up using the linearity of time and deciding upon its inclusiveness and its excludedness along the way, as well as locking in the components it has within the corpus of its tale – however at that time they may have been situated or positioned. Yet this paradoxical formation of a formation in history can also be the intensely valuable and beautiful story of something like Breadcrumb Trail (full doc below), Lance Bang’s film of the Louisville band Slint and their formation up to the recording in 1991 of the album Spiderland.

(A jump-to in the film) Even as earlier side-incarnation ‘Maurice’ – gems are emerging.

It was difficult to ignore the arrival of what became known as post-rock music in the early to mid 90’s, a genre as identified by music writer Simon Reynolds and that became largely enshrined around the work of bands like Tortoise, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. However, lurking behind some of these bands from their earliest influences were Slint, who broke up just after making Spiderland, an album that would be appraised and re-appraised with more understanding over time as to its achievement and impact.

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One of the things that drew me back to Slint took place a year or so back, when the Yewtewb algorithm pointed me in the direction of the demo for ‘Good morning Captain’ (below) the final song on Spiderland. It was striking just how much it is a brilliant and precise composition and just how finely honed the song is even for a demo level of recording. The comments for the video echoed more or less the same things, how could this music come from such young kids?

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Slint’s first album was 1989’s Tweez recorded by Steve Albini, an unconventional collection that sought a playful but purposive re-alignment of rock’s boundaries with noise, ambience and an anarcho-punk power of unconventional approaches to song writing and repetition. While pulling off songs which successfully challenged a number of these forms – it didn’t seem to presage the emergence of the consistent, precise and radically cogent work which was to come a few years later.

The film explains that they also recorded two tracks as part of a session (before they came back to do what would end up being Spiderland) the songs Glenn and Rhoda (released as an an untitled ep in 1994). While not seeing the light of day until after Spiderland, these tracks give a sense of Slint’s developing sonic trajectory. It was prior to Glenn and Rhoda that the band lineup crystalised with Bass player Todd Brashear replacing Ethan Buckler to join Brian McMahan (guitar and vocals), David Pajo (guitar) and Britt Walford (drums and vocals)

Glenn is notable for how much of a relation there is with the melodic approach of Scottish stalwarts Mogwai (who formed in 1995). Though to be as sustained and productive as Mogwai, a number of nuanced inspirational forces will have been at work as part of a genuinely creative endeavour. Not least in the ongoing mutation of their sound and some of their best work to date being their most recent.

Glenn also showcases how much Slint were already arriving at the ability to have a kind of dancing interplay between instruments, whose turns and interactions could occur at strange angles and overlaps in timing. Whose phrasings could expand or coalesce in relation to each other, past beginnings and endings of other phrases and refrains, but not lose coherence or intensity – instead by dint of those very qualities of how interactive and slippery, how elusive and strangely emotive they were; enhance them instead.

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A deeper dive through Slint (and Spiderland) had taken many years to arrive for me, massively encouraged and benefitted from encountering Breadcrumb trail. A film that gives more context in the earlier band scene through which Slint formed, with the knock-on effect for the impact their music has had as well as the journey of the Slint musicians. For example, some of the bands that formed in the wake of what Slint had achieved, sometimes coming from a space alongside (for example when David Pajo went on to work with an early incarnation of Tortoise that formed the keystone trajectory of the Chicago post-rock scene).

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Spiderland’s third song Don, Aman gives us that spareness and space, we return with the now familiar angularity doubled across guitars to create a haunted chamber of chiming resonance. One more time after countless listens and even then after the first few notes of Don, Aman the thought occurs, let this music into your heart and it will take you to extraordinary places. It is an evocation and a demonstration, that they will take off through obtuse angles at unusual places and that doing this (in sonic form) is a contact with recourses and resources and reserves of what is powerful and energised about the space and life outside normativity in the language and signage of music. It is a music that at its time, has escaped the ongoing-past of sonic-expressive conformity and in that respect retains the energy and non-sonorous momentum of this breakthrough.

The film tells us that alongside these tracks which having that sense of precision and interaction akin to seeing the inside of a crafted timepiece, there was room for improvisation. Pajo and others reveal how much they were still composing and improvising in the studio, in the tight timeframe they had to record, even with a track like Don, Aman which had not been played fully before they entered the studio. In this respect plaudits should also go to the producer Brian Paulson, who explains at one stage that his entire approach had been to remove himself as much as possible from the process and formation of the music.

Of their earlier album’s sound, Albini by contrast notes with some contrition ‘when I listen to Tweez now, it does sound way more processed than it probably needed to be’. Paulson sidestepped any such potential as part of the producer’s role both with his intent and his process. ‘I guess my motive at that point in time was to record things as purely as possible, kind of… Let things unfold as they unfold and not try to get in the way of things that would happen naturally.’

Interestingly Paulsen also says ‘the course of the recording process, the more we tried to bring out of it, the more we realised it was best left alone…’

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The Spiderland song ‘Washer’ not only has one of the best refrains in all of guitar music, but then shows a kind of acuity of awareness to also drop the refrain for the introduction of the vocal section which is spaced within this sparse but highly charged void of gaps. It becomes an exemplification that sometimes the highest form of giving in music both as musicians to each other and to all those others listening and responding and playing in their own regards is/are silence and silences.

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When thinking about it, the comparison that comes to mind for Slint is what was created with the impact and sonic break-out of the Velvet Underground and Nico in the 1960’s. The Velvets re/introduced people to the seminal, fundamental power of drone, alongside an edge-lit rock lyricism-of-the-streets wrapped in a poetic-pop melodicism. Slint on the other hand expanded on the melodic relationship of chords and notes, in a way that imbued that same emphasis on authentically empathic melodies but in a newly estranged and beautifully distended way, in which gaps existed, like a suddenly found and fugitively gained view of a crepuscular sky, the stars leaking through.

The Velvets also notably incorporated what would become a classic of narrative/story telling in songs when they recorded ‘The Gift’ (below) on the White Light White Heat album in 1968. It could be argued that there has been very little that has come close to the effectiveness of this early excurser in rock and its offshoots until Slint.

While the Velvets became a revelatory touchstone for those seeking a kind of ‘ur’ return in their music – with their vibrant, abusively erudite brightness (while maybe a little sashayed in some aspects with a knowing coolness) – Slint found instead, an approach of sonic-mechanics that creates spaces and atmospheres that stretched out the connections of the everyday in song-form, that recodified senses of relationship with the constituents of the world of sound and allowed for a re-approach to what relative importance they have.

The Breadcrumb Trail documentary shows us that Rachmaninov was one inspiration, similarly there is an eastern tang to some of the angularity at work. Its an aesthetic that runs through Spiderland and shows the band were actively engaging across many spaces of musical production far beyond rock or punk rock. While in doing so, the songs as a body are lifted by this sustained consistency of approach and composition.

The film gives us ammunition for understanding how a band like Slint can emerge, they were given a non-judgmental, non-intereference ‘safe space’ in Britt Walford’s parent’s basement, but another interesting dimension is added when we see that both Walford and McMahan went to an experimental secondary school that encouraged the pupils to work together to learn and problem solve, to be engaged in what and how they would learn.

The fact that they are shown in their earlier incarnations of bands like Languid and Flaccid (when they were too small to carry their own amps) alongside their obvious talents and dedication – and no small part thanks to the basement donated by Walford’s parents, gives the sense of their part and trajectory in the Punk Rock and Hardcore scene around Louisville. One contributer points out that their attitude was never different than wanting to make a radical punk rock album and yet Spiderland suggests an understanding of this (even if not entirely consciously in location) that underpins that true radicality on this occasion transcends form and gives a new mode or sound for the traditional rock architecture to explore. This via its ongoing mutation, phrasing and combining with different accents and possibilities. Where the simplest and gentlest of changes in approach yield consistencies that redefine the scape and scope of this often moribund septagenarian art form. Something expanded upon and explored to great effect in the thirty years since.

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At the end of the 90’s, I was fortunate to travel with some friends to a small venue in Oxford called the Zodiac that held a couple of hundred people. There to be assailed and blasted into a new dimension of awareness by Mogwai, young and adventurous and armed with a ferocious sonic power to transform you through volume and distortion. During their set in promotion of Young Team album, people were screaming and exhorting as the band hovered their feet above their distortion pedals, before they would in-unison descend and you would drown to wake in a wave of instant and paradoxcally serene power. It has scarecely if at all been an experience paralleled at other live events since. Mogwai as they became more successful, played larger venues and that intimate cave of transformation was mutated into something else. Yet for altogether another reason this was also a gig that was notable for the support being from David Pajo’s Ariel M group, who played through their eponymous album (above) and left behind the sense of a quietly wonderous, mesmeric vapour trail of luminous tunery.

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The most raucus section and moments in Album closer Good Morning Captain, where Brian McMahan screams ‘I Miss you‘ repeatedly, while the guitars surge with distorted riffing precision. This distorted section itself is played twice previously when briefly it arrives as a short break between those angular, looping repetitions before returning at the end, played through ‘I’ll make it up to you‘ and then finally transfoming as the super-charged denouement when it is given over in full to its throes of distorted guitar-hamonic refrains, and McMahon finally unleashes those screams (which comments around the internet suggest may have been in relation to McMahan’s feelings about leaving his younger brother in Louisville as music took him beyond it). And it is this dramatic section, brilliantly described in the film – which takes you via a sand-blasted sonic incandescence. A final breaking out from the epically balanced sensitivity of what has come before in the album and in Good Morning Captain itself. This is another achievement of the album, to embrace real contact with the depth of pain and yet give something in response which is transformative in its nature, to take you through those sensations and understandings, rendered within and without words, as beautifully wrought tone-worlds that escape the expressive gravity of their apparent predicament.

You hear the song holding its nerve at this point as a blistered, emotional radiance, full of intensity, sonically a tightrope of navigation that maintains the band’s overall approach of highly measured, slightly-oddly configured refrain elements, interlocking and mesmeric, but buoyed by its capacity to contain something which creates a sonic tension, an ongoing borderland of dissonance within itself. In this respect, at this distorted ending/take off/landing you can hear that same intelligence at work, measured and paitent, wound and loose at the same time, and with its simple but vibrant hamonic ripplings, you hear it move between existing rock-isms in sound, not succumbing to the means of most, travelling instead between, between any potential for the pompous or overblowing in rock, between the harder, faster riffing of ‘traditional’ metal. The bridge between established modes and understandings, to something else, which in the context of how we have seen guitar music develop since Slint, has revealed in fact a doorway through to a different vista of sonic fecundities. Accessed with patience, through repetition and experimentation with new relationships to measure and form, deepening, intensifying, and in the manner of it consistently just being itself (as Brian Paulsen aluded to) simplifying.

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