25 years after it’s release GIGsoup revisit Slint’s ‘Spiderland’

An aura of mystique still hangs around ‘Spiderland’ and its creators, even a quarter of a century since its release. Initially overlooked, with Slint splitting before its release, the album quietly spawned a generation of evangelical followers. Today, the band’s name is still regularly invoked by critics as a shorthand for artistic, complex guitar music.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of ‘Spiderland’ was its restraint. In the world of underground rock that Slint emerged from, one which was on the precipice of exploding into the mainstream, the move away from the prevalent aggression and noise of the time was an subversive act, and may be why the album flew under the radar for so long. From the delicate harmonics of ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ to the crushing denouement of ‘Good Morning, Captain’, via mumbled vocals and irregular time signatures, ‘Spiderland’ was a passive aggressive response to the outwardly aggressive music dominating punk and metal at the time.

Even in the context of Slint‘s career to that point, ‘Spiderland’ came completely out of the blue; nothing on the band’s oddball debut, ‘Tweez’, could have prepared listeners for the extreme dynamic contrasts and intricate arrangements of its follow-up. In fact, ‘Spiderland’s idiosyncratic vocals came as a surprise not only to underground rock fans, but to some members of Slint.

At their sporadic live appearances, Slint mostly performed their songs as instrumentals. Until they stepped into the studio to record the album, only guitarist/vocalist Brian McMahan and his writing parter, drummer Britt Walford, had seen the lyrics or heard the songs with vocals (Walford also contributes vocals on the track ‘Don, Aman’). Opener, ‘Breadcrumb Trail’, demonstrates some of the vocal approaches used on the album; it begins with McMahan murmuring over David Pajo‘s spindly guitar line, before a heavy distorted riff kicks in, and McMahan switches to a strained yell. Despite never practising the songs with vocals, the band were meticulous in their compositional approach, right down to the guitarists’ strumming technique: on ‘Don, Aman’, Walford up-picks while Pajo down-picks to create a richer harmonic texture.

The lyrics on ‘Spiderland’ mostly take a narrative form: ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ describes a trip to a fairground; ‘Nosferatu Man’ is inspired by the 1922 silent horror film; ‘Don, Aman’, follows a lonely man at a party; ‘Good Morning, Captain’ is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s epic poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Only ‘Washer’, the one track (in Slint‘s entire recorded output) to feature conventional melodic singing from McMahan, has anything resembling typical pop/rock lyrics. This makes ‘Washer’ the most nakedly emotional song on the album; whereas everything else comes with a layer of detachment, here McMahan‘s vocals are front and centre.

Slint are part of a byzantine family tree, with teenage hardcore weirdoes Squirrel Bait and Maurice at its roots and acts as disparate as Tortoise, The For Carnation and The Breeders amongst its many branches. But none have come close to creating anything of ‘Spiderland’s stature, which remains a truly unique indie rock masterpiece.

This Slint article was written by Joe Turner, a GIGsoup Contributor. Edited by Stephen Butchard.

UNFORGOTTEN: Slint 'Spiderland' (1991)

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