Thursday, November 18, 2010

Words on music: Slint and prog metal

I've switched reading gears rather drastically since finishing James Salter's outstanding mounting-climbing-themed novel Solo Faces. Within the past couple of weeks, two music books I'd feverishly anticipated have crossed my desk, and diligent devouring has ensued.

Scott Tennent's Spiderland, part of the esteemed 33 1/3 series that will issue my book on Ween's Chocolate and Cheese next March, is a fascinating read. The premise is a simple yet, all told, extremely tricky one: Tennent sets out to demystify Slint, a band whose reputation has everything to do with the fetishization of mystery. Few Slint fans would deny that the very fact of knowing so little about them has contributed greatly to their rabidness. But Tennent's demystification is a healthy and helpful one. A large part of what he's trying to do is set the record straight on one key point: The little-known band Maurice, which contained future Slint guitarist Dave Pajo and drummer Britt Walford, played a much more formative role in shaping the eventual Slint sound than did the much better known Squirrel Bait, the pre-Slint project of Brian McMahan. Tennent pieces together the Maurice story—as far as I know, entirely untold up till now—via interviews with Pajo and the band's vocalist, Sean "Rat" Garrison, and also excavates the tale of the Languid and Flaccid, an improbably advanced grade-school band that included Walford and McMahan, along with Will Oldham's brother (and future Anomoanon leader) Ned. (An excerpt from the book dealing with the latter project is available via the 33 1/3 blog.)

This may seem like a matter of minutiae, but it's not: The point is that, contrary to popular belief, Spiderland came from somewhere; it was an album in a context, not only of Maurice but of the rest of Slint's output. As Tennent rightly points out, many Slint enthusiasts try to explain away the band's incongruous debut, Tweez, a dismissal that's both a historical and aesthetic mistake. Tennent argues passionately for what I came to realize after my adolescent devotion to Spiderland lessened enough for me to give Tweez a clear listen: The latter is a fantastic and fantastically strange record, full of inscrutable in-jokes and weird, disorienting virtuosity. Unlike Spiderland, it didn't spawn a whole genre; instead it exists as an alien world.

Tennent combines these main arguments with detailed discussions of Slint's practice and touring regimens (not to mention a stone-cold fascinating account of a formative Maurice road jaunt opening for Samhain), their obsessive attention to technical details (whether guitars were up-picked or downpicked, say), their programmatic songwriting tactics (heard most clearly on Spiderland opener "Breadcrumb Trail," which Tennent analyzes shrewdly) and their unlikely gig history (Slint debuted as a live band 24 years ago this month during an actual Sunday church mass). Walford and McMahan declined to be interviewed for the book, which is a bummer, but nevertheless, there's tons of new information here thanks to the Pajo and Garrison interviews, and to Tennent's methodical approach to tracking the band's history step-by-step. More importantly, though, there's a brave new attitude toward Slint scholarship at work. Tennent encourages his fellow Slint devotees to challenge the myths and enigmas—in some cases, very romantic ones, like the widespread and apocryphal rumor that one or more members of the band were institutionalized after the recording of Spiderland—in order that we might let a little reality into our conception of this extraordinary band. He concludes, and I think you'll agree, that even with many of the facts right at hand, there's plenty of depth left in Spiderland. For us Slint die-hards, the magic isn't dissipating anytime soon.

The other music book I've been checking out, Mean Deviation—former Metal Maniacs editor Jeff Wagner's history of progressive metal—resembles Tennent's in one crucial sense: It's sent me scurrying to the stereo. In just about every other capacity, though, this is a very different book. Tennent, in accordance with the 33 1/3 credo, focuses much of his scholarly energy on a single record, and even with all the aforementioned context, it's still a narrow project—after all, Slint officially released only 17 measly songs during its life span. Wagner's tome, on the other hand, is macro to the core, an unabashedly superficial overview of a four-decade-old genre.

I've found that the less I already know about a band discussed in Mean Deviation, the more excited I am by Wagner's text. (For example, I've read the sections on Mercyful Fate and Watchtower with much greater interest than those on Gorguts and Confessor.) And in the end, this isn't—like Tennent's book—a project with a strong sense of mission, with some greater purpose for existing outside of the fact that, well, Jeff Wagner is clearly a lifelong devotee of progressive metal—his intro speaks reverently of his personal lode-star album, Voivod's controversial Angel Rat—and he wanted to put together a sort of survey course on the genre, one that namechecked all the key bands without getting too bogged down with respect to any one. (Though I must say, the Dream Theater section I'm currently wading through is trying my patience.) This is valuable in the same way that any exhaustive yet still readable reference book is valuable: It places the spotlight on the artists rather than on the author's agenda, and it inevitably whets a listener's appetite. Right now, I've got a to-download list about 40 albums deep (from Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny to Watchtower's Control and Resistance—and maybe even, if I'm feeling especially brave, Queensr├┐che's Rage for Order), and no matter what any writer-about-music may tell you, that's the real objective of what we do: to breed curiosity that leads to actual first-person contact with the art in question. So, in that respect, bravo to you, Jeff Wagner—I'm definitely getting my prog-metal on this week as a result of your work.

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