The Storm Took Them All: Spiderland Turns 30

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Slint – Spiderland

Released March 27th, 1991 on Touch and Go Records

Produced by Brian Paulson

Slint broke up before the release of Spiderland, their second and final album. No one noticed, and the album sold in negligible quantities. So why are we celebrating it’s release?

It might have something to do with the insidious way that the record has melded itself into the experimental side of the alternative rock movement; the way it’s become a touchstone for post-rock; the fact that the critical acclaim heaped on Black Country, New Road this year has been driven largely by the fact that they are a jazzy version of Slint and we are apparently, thirty years afterward, heavily nostalgic for Spiderland. I’ll be honest: for the first 20 years of it’s existence I was unaware of it, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I knew the album cover by sight but had no idea about the record or it’s place in history. /mu/ made me listen to it, eventually, the same way that they make people who have somehow avoided listening to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea listen to it: by spamming it continuously until you break down. Kind of glad they did, of course.

The band’s first album, Tweez, was produced by Steve Albini and is a sloppy, much more with-the-times kind of alt-hardcore record. I haven’t listened to it in years but I’m pretty sure I remember hearing a passage on it that Nirvana clearly lifted for something on In Utero. Spiderland is a much different record; it grabs you and holds you and will not let you go until you break down weeping for your own lost childhood. The intensity of the record is matched by the stories that circulate about the recording process. The band members have gone on the record as stating that the recording sessions for Spiderland were intense, with the band taking everything seriously to the point where they were perhaps taking it too seriously. There are any number of tales, all of them likely apocryphal, that various members of the band had to be institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals during the making of the album. Drummer Britt Walford claims those stories are all fake, of course, although he admits that the four-day recording session was “stressful.”

The intensity comes through: Spiderland is a jagged, disconcerting album, like wandering into a funhouse hall of mirrors and being unable to find your way out until it lets you out. Off-kilter, strangely timed rhythms resolve into eerie arpeggios, oddly discordant harmonies conjure up ghosts before disappearing them, and the story-telling vocals of Brian McMahan place anguished cries and literary passages into the mix in a way that accentuates the haunted nature of the record. It is vicious in its despair, a half-muttered and half-wailed hymn to the end of innocence and the failure to deal with what that means. It went soft to loud without seeming like all the other alt/grunge records breaking over the next couple of years. The music built, crested, and broke again. If this sounds like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky, well…

This is a long route around answering the question. Over the years people heard the album and passed the recommendation on. They heard its lessons and made music that kinda sounded like it, leading both to math-rock and, through American Football, mutations of midwestern emo. Few people owned the record, but a lot of music that people did buy had its roots in that dusty funhouse horrorshow. In a sense it’s like the Velvet Underground in the 1960s: almost no one heard them, but those that did all went out and started a band. So now, thirty years and several created genres later, we’re celebrating its release because its influence is undeniable.

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