Slint's Metro show half zingers, half zzzz


March 26, 2005


At its best, the reunited underground alt-rock band Slint is like the ocean: alternately lulling and hypnotizing as it laps at your feet, or frighteningly powerful as it smashes into you with cascading fury.

At its worst -- which was about half of its 12-song, no-encore set Thursday at Metro, the first of three sold-out shows in Chicago -- Slint is a soggy bore.

From Duran Duran and Motley Crue to the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., nobody in rock stays broken up anymore, and now it's time for this Louisville, Ky., foursome (which expands to a quintet at points during its reunion shows) to come back for the big cash-in.

Slint is renowned for zigging when everyone else zagged. As underground rock turned up the volume in the late '80s and broke into the mainstream as grunge in the early '90s, these introspective shoegazers made a fetish out of being quiet. They only released an EP and two albums before splintering into myriad other indie combos, and their most successful disc -- 1991's "Spiderland," recorded in Chicago by Brian Paulson and released on the local Touch & Go label -- sold fewer than 50,000 copies.

Nevertheless, the band's influence endures, in the legions of pseudo-progressive "math rock" bands that followed in its wake, as well as in hordes of emo-punk groups enamored of its dynamic shifts and pretentious/poetic lyrics, which are most often whispered but occasionally shouted by vocalist Brian McMahan.

The members of Slint are well aware of the audience's respect, and they played up their legendary status in an obnoxious and most un-indie way, with overdone lighting (the better to illuminate their genius) and an elaborate array of technical gear. Guitarist David Pajo, who briefly did time in Tortoise and Billy Corgan's Zwan post-Slint, took up a third of Metro's large stage, and he clearly enjoyed playing the role of virtuosic rock god every bit as much as Eric Clapton or Steve Howe of Yes as he colored the music with his serpentine riffs and squiggly drones.

Meanwhile, undeniably impressive drummer Britt Walford did his never-ending crescendo thing at center stage, while crowded together at stage right were McMahan, bassist Todd Cook (a ringer who wasn't in the original group) and part-time extra guitarist Michael McMahan (another fellow who wasn't in the initial lineup).

To be sure, there were moments of greatness, and not just for nostalgic reasons. The group opened with "Good Morning, Captain" from "Spiderland" -- featured on the soundtrack of "Kids," it was as close to a hit as the band ever got -- and the tune built from an ominous buzz to McMahan's climactic wails of "I miss you!"

But too many of the other songs went nowhere, repeating the same formulas to the point of stultifying boredom, and the pretension meter shot into the red when the musicians sat down to render the fragile "Don, Aman," with Walford solemnly intoning the impressionistic lines, "A plane passes silently overhead/The streetlights, and the buds on the trees, were still."

I longed for the fellow who shouted out for "Freebird" to pipe up again. Instead, the reverential crowd angrily shushed anyone who dared to speak, soaking in the band as if they were receiving a sacrament. They had come to worship at the Temple of Slint, and they would not be deterred.

At least the crowd at the Motley Crue reunion had more fun.

Opening for Slint was the Louisville quintet Verktum, which owed all-too-obvious musical debts to the precise fury of the Jesus Lizard and the grinding power of the God Bullies. But frontman Darren Rappa, formerly the bassist with King Kong, lacked the menacing intensity of David Yow or Mike Hard. The best he could muster was an annoying goofiness, and that wore out its welcome two songs into a 40-minute set.