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Definitive Albums: Slint 'Spiderland' (1991)

We Cry (for Spider)

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Slint 'Spiderland'

Slint 'Spiderland'

Touch and Go

Seminally Speaking

It'd be a misuse of language to call Spiderland the LP that 'kick-started' the post-rock movement. Sure, it went on to become a bedrock for post-rock, that seatide of moody music that crested in the mid-'90s in a wave of albums housed in letter-pressed cardboard artwork. And, if you're charting other marginal alt-music movements from the '90s —math-rock, slowcore— then, too, Spiderland was an undeniable catalyst.

But, the second album by the post-hardcore Kentuckians sure didn't kick anything; its influence rather devoid of immediacy. Upon its 1991 release, barely anyone noticed. Instead Spiderland's legacy grew in a fashion that mirrored the music on it: slow, steady, barely perceptible, ultimately legendary.

Dynamic Hypnotic

Where the idea of quiet-to-loud shifts in indie music tends to be monopolized by The Pixies and Nirvana, Slint are a much more detailed, more nuanced study of dramatic shifts in volume. Rather than happily flipping back-and-forth to match verses and choruses, the quartet —guitarists Brian McMahan and Dave Pajo, bassist Ethan Buckler, drummer Britt Walford— explore the extremes of dynamics in an often-obtuse fashion.

This isn't music of power-chords and melodic hooks, but abstract patterns and snaking guitar lines; large movements built on irregular tempos, tonal harmonies, and bursts of pure discordance. Slint are less interested in tension/release than just tension; there a razor-wire tightness in the way that they —as at exactly six minutes into "Washer," for example— can turn their momentum on and off, can hold back when things seem like they're (finally) heading forward.

Where many contrast-happy bands treat the quiet bits as a kind of annoying foreplay —moments of required patience delaying the inevitable feverish flurries— Slint spend much of Spiderland exploring near-silence as a compositional tool. The five minutes of "For Dinner..." rarely rises above a murmur; its pace remaining a sullen, tortured crawl the whole while.

Which is not to say that Slint can't sound utterly ugly when they want to. In an era defined by pigfuck and grunge, they were surely required to at least periodically bring the noise; "Nosferatu Man"'s hoarse screams and guitar crunch sounding, in many ways, like a kind of perverse, postmodern, perpetually-uptight take on heavy metal.

The Dust and the Memories

Listening to Spiderland with critical ears, its easy to hear the album as less than its colossal influence; to wonder to what it owes its staggering, almost inexplicable influence; to decry its lack of pop-songs, or the way its elements —half-spoken vocals, latticed guitar shards, snare-thumping drums— remain entirely unchanged.

But, to deny the myths of Spiderland is to disengage with the actual music on some spiritual level. In a long-ago era, Slint only really existed as these songs. By the time Spiderland was released, the band had already broken up, leaving no promotion —by interview or live-show— at all for what was, to that point, their only readily-available recording.

For years, all Slint were for listeners were four disembodied heads floating in a quarry; their names not even present on Spiderland's sleeve. Though the four fellow's heads were always there —forever floating, gazed fixed right on listeners but eternally elusive — the album was effectively unmoored; floating in a world all its sonic own.

Perhaps a huge reason for the seemingly-disproportionate influence that this stark, amelodic, unwelcoming, insular, not-particularly-charismatic music had on a whole generation of indie bands was that very sense of mystery, of mythology. With band no longer around to speak on its behalf, the music spoke for itself. Sometimes in a tiny whisper, sometimes in a baleful scream, but always eloquently.

Record Label: Touch and Go
Release Date: 27 March, 1991

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