Albums / EPs, Reviews

Throwback Thursday: Slint – Spiderland

It’s difficult to imagine Slint’s sprawling Spiderland ever being new. It is something so steeped in folklore and deference…

It’s difficult to imagine Slint’s sprawling Spiderland ever being new. It is something so steeped in folklore and deference that it can only ever be centuries old or newly discovered; simply waiting. Yet this is the idea that has been emulated in the release of the remastered limited edition with 3 vinyls, 2 CD’s and a hefty booklet replete with experiences from the recording sessions and a new documentary called Breadcrumb Trail to boot. We can only be most grateful to know that 23 years after it’s release, the recording sessions of Brain McMahon and Co. are no longer so far removed from reality.

The remastering had to be very careful, to wrangle the quiet and taut sound that is Spiderland was always going to be a big ask. But they’ve managed it here. The songs are brighter, the volume and sound more accessible; and none of the magic has been stolen from it. In fact, we haven’t even been shown how the tricks are achieved. Yet there is something about the original that will always beg a quiet listen in a darkened room, its very form – amorphous as it is – has become less companion, and more familiar spectre. 

What is most stark is that Slint are never painted as an extraordinary band that went to achieve a grandiose type of success. Shortly after recording Spiderland (which without their intention came to be their genre’s chef d’œuvre) the four-piece disbanded and faded hazily into mere memory. If anything, the jarring photo on the album’s front, wading in the murky waters of a quarry, seems to be the only moment they were ever still and visible to us, what happened moments after and before that image being infinitely unknowable. 

To listen to this landmark album is to step out of reality and to spend time with Brian McMahan where he stands watching the events of Spiderland at a distance, yet somehow simultaneously at its very core. Taking on many different guises throughout the album’s length, perspectives flit in front of us, and rigid quatrains of lyrics morph into disordered streams of conscious thought. It feels almost obscene at points, a pornographic voyeurism, so that when a story is told we can hardly tell if we are in the midst of its middle, beginning or end.  

Slint are oft claimed to be the definitive post-rock band, and also the one that ruined it for all those who came after it. The works of Tortoise, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and even Big Black have all been held and examined under the intangible light that Spiderland seems to emit. They left those toys behind them and now the label of ‘post-rock’ flits behind them like a torn flag on a bicycle, quite useless and absurd. It’s for this reason that the album cannot be fairly described as seminal: there has not been nor will there be anything close to its magic. Though, many have been called derivative of it only because once it has been heard there is no turning back. 

It is storytelling at its most captivating and spell-binding. Staying true to meandering time signatures and unpredictable chord progressions, but yet it flouts the instrumental centre that everything in post-rock seems to hinge on. Here, for just under 40 minutes, McMahon’s voice is all that matters – it’s given unthinkable agency, its conformations are pivotal: from each whisper, to warble, to screech.

Perhaps this is how ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ manages to so stunningly veer into the unknown right at the outset. Viciously, like someone has swallowed a handful of amphetamines and put a brick on the accelerator. Steered by almost manic lyricism, and Gothic storytelling that is showcased throughout the album. Combined with the assured tinkering of David Pajo’s guitar, the description of a chaste dalliance with a fortune-teller at a carnival becomes somehow perverse.  The ascent of a rollercoaster described as a, ”goodbye to the ground” with the screaming, tortured guitars it’s almost nauseating. It leaves a listener disoriented, but all at once and undeniably there.  

‘Nosferatu Man’ is most remisnescent of their hardcore pedigree from their Steve Albini (Nirvana’s In Utero) produced debut Tweez. With Brit Walford’s relentlessly jolting drumwork ostensibly lumbering between the sharp guitar-ticks, but somehow still deft and precise. Hardcore, yes, but always subdued. Like the feeling of drinking alone. The excellent drum work is only made more stark by it’s complete absence on the very next track, ‘Don, Aman’. Here McMahon’s voice is left unencumbered to domineer with his clever intonations and frenzied phrasing. There’s nowhere to hide as he tells us that, “Don stepped outside.” His quiet introspection of “being watched from the outside” then becomes the loudest part of this album, drowning out the scream and screeches that follow. 

Yet on ‘Washer’, the demented love ballad, the lyrical itinerancy is abandoned for a single-minded focus and clarity that haunts any witness to it. Melancholia and obsessive longing is almost palpable in the unremitting and rolling guitar line and the crisp, demanding drumwork. McMahon’s vocal creeps out of the confines of the melody and into a space just outside your periphery, hanging just out of our reach. Slint suddenly thunder along as gargantuan figures. Stretching you taut with no qualms about the mess they leave you in.

Our eventual catharsis is suspended throughout the excellent instrumental ‘For Dinner’, and only comes on the final track: ‘Good Morning, Captain’. It is perhaps, with no overstatement and with no small effort, the noblest one here. The delicate instrumentals still manage to confidently strut on ‘Good Morning Captain’ and we could think we’ve finally got them figured: the builds and breaks; the quiet then loud. The time signatures stutter just like they should, chords meandering and cutting through the thick. For the longest while it’s rapturous. Until the McMahon’s voice inevitably penetrates. Bringing with it only abject horror. Slowly painting the harrowing scene that ends with ‘I miss you,’ wrested from his throat. It manages to echo long after David Pajo’s guitar feedback has faded into the welcome silence. 

It’s popularly fabled that recording, brief and improvisatory as it was, halted after the session of ‘Good Morning, Captain’ with McMahon having to check himself into hospital. The band, only human, breaking up shortly after the album’s release. 23 years on and it barely matters; their work was done. Their promised fame and influence was accrued years after it was earned, and certainly years after it was ever wanted. Steve Albini, in 1991 said of Spiderland, having glimpsed their potential, that, “until [there’s another band like Slint], play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In ten years, you’ll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.” An age may have passed since, but it still rings true. The truth that we’ll still be listening to it; wondering at its selfless catharsis. Still. And, hopefully, always. 


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