‘Play it again;’ came the call from the floor of the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, as Slint wrapped up the evening’s performance, ‘the whole set!’ Cheers of agreement quickly overtook laughter as the crowd’s response, with everyone present still ready, willing, and eager for anything – and everything – the elusive group from Louisville, Kentucky, might care to share with the captivated audience. It was a sentiment that not only reflected the audience’s appreciation for an outstanding performance, but also the sense one gets from listening to the ensemble’s seminal work, Spiderland.
Spiderland is mythic in the telling of its creation: months spent rehearsing, with hours at a time spent practicing a single riff so that one guitar would strum a chord upwards precisely as the other was strumming downwards; lyrics neither written nor committed to until they entered the studio; a mere four days spent recording; and stories of band members institutionalised due to the stress and trauma of the creative process. As with all modern myths, some elements are apocryphal, others slight exaggerations, but all underlined by the true and the extraordinary. Throw into this mix the fact that by the time of Spiderland’s release in 1991, Slint had already disbanded, you have more than enough material to spin an intriguing yarn.
Little attention was paid to Spiderland upon its initial release, though it has since come to hold a reputation as the first modern post-rock album, and its influence lives up to the story of its origin and far exceeds its 39 broody minutes. Where the Pixies use of loud-quiet dynamics inspired acts such as Nirvana, Radiohead, and Alice In Chains to explore rock music’s primal energy and contradictory nature; Slint’s inspired groups like Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and ISIS to explore rock’s aural textures and emotional nuances.
From opening track, Breadcrumb Trail, through to closing number, Good Morning, Captain, Slint deftly match music to lyrical content, with the rollercoaster ride of the former expressed as much through music as through words, and the latter evoking the distress of a shipwrecked sailor as well as the storm that wrecked him. Brian McMahan’s mumbled/spoken-word/shouted vocal delivery matches well with his and David Pajo’s twisting guitar work on the gothic, Nosferatu Man, with Todd Brashear’s bass and Britt Walford’s drums providing solid rhythms that drive the song onwards. Walford steps out from behind the drum-kit to deliver the vocals of Don, Aman, a song so unsettling it is easy to miss that it is narrating a panic attack in action.
Technically Spiderland is Slint’s second record, but it stands so far apart from, so far above-and-beyond the punk/noise-rock of their 1989 debut, Tweez, that it may as well belong to an entirely different band. And this poses a trap for anyone who becomes smitten with Spiderland; it is such an astoundingly good album that you can’t help but want more, but there is no more. No matter how good the music produced by Slint’s members before or since, nothing compares, nothing scratches that itch. Somehow, at the start of the nineties, Slint managed to catch lightning in a bottle and transform something delicate and ephemeral into an enduring touchstone.