Slint’s ‘Spiderland’ turns 30 — a look back on the album that created a genre and remains timeless
Slint's 'Spiderland' and self-titled EP are available on black vinyl in our store.
Once upon a time in Louisville, a few hardcore kids were getting tired of the genre so they formed a new band and went in a different direction. They released one album, recorded by Steve Albini, and it caught the attention of Touch & Go Records who signed them for a followup. The band ended up breaking up before the release, so it came out with little promotion and was never supported with a tour. It didn't get many reviews, and it didn't sell very well. It would go on to be considered one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, and has widely been credited with pioneering an entire genre. That band was Slint, that genre was post-rock, and that album was Spiderland, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this Saturday (3/27).
"When it came out, nobody cared," Touch & Go founder Corey Rusk told Pitchfork in 2006. "But it was a revolutionary, groundbreaking record, and it's one of the few instances where people catch up to it later on. Every year since it came out, more and more people kept talking about how influential it was on their band. Bands who were doing really well would talk about how Slint were a huge influence on them, and the sales of that record kept growing and growing."
One person who did call it in real time was Steve Albini himself. Though the band opted to work with a different engineer on Spiderland (their friend Brian Paulson, who would go on to work with Superchunk, Wilco, Archers of Loaf, Dinosaur Jr, and many others), Albini realized that Spiderland was not only their masterpiece but a landmark in rock music. "It’s an amazing record," he said in a 1991 review for Melody Maker, "and no one still capable of being moved by rock music should miss it. In 10 years it will be a landmark and you’ll have to scramble to buy a copy then. Beat the rush."
Albini acknowledged that the album he recorded, 1989's Tweez, "hints at their genius, but only a couple of the tracks have anything like the staying power of Spiderland." "Straining to find a band to compare them with, I can only think of two, and Slint doesn’t sound anything like either of them," Albini said, before namedropping Marquee Moon-era Television and Crazy Horse. "To whom would Pere Ubu or Chrome have been compared in 1972? Forgive me, I am equally clueless." And if his in-depth assessment wasn't enough to sell you on the record, he ended the review on a more straightforward note: "Ten fucking stars."
Albini's prediction about this album's legacy was spot on. It might've been a blip in 1991, but as Stuart Braithwaite of Scottish post-rock band Mogwai (who were hugely influenced by Slint) put it, "In the late 1990s, they seemed like our generation’s Velvet Underground." "When I heard it, it was unlike anything I’d heard before," he said. "I still don’t know if I have heard anything else like it, now. Obviously a lot of bands take a lot from it – I know that we did, but there’s also PJ Harvey, and Fugazi. A lot of bands took a lot from it. But I don’t think that any band influenced by Slint has managed to capture the same atmosphere as Spiderland."
30 years on from its release, Stuart Braithwaite's assessment feels as true as ever. Not only did this album open the doors for post-rock bands like Mogwai (and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, Tortoise [who Slint's David Pajo went on to join], and countless others), it also left an undeniable mark on post-hardcore, indie rock, emo, math rock, noise rock, and even certain types of metal, and still nothing sounds like it. Brian McMahan's low-in-the-mix vocals -- which could be whispered, spoken, or screamed -- influenced generation after generation of anxious singers who had deeply personal stories to tell but lacked the technical skills and most of the confidence to do so. The album was punk in spirit -- it played by its own rules, it felt real and DIY and obtainable for any aspiring musician -- but it sounded nothing like the punk bands Slint's members had been in previously (including Squirrel Bait, who Dave Grohl was a huge fan of, and the Glenn Danzig-approved Maurice). Instead of short, fast, and loud, Slint went long, slow, and quiet. Spiderland's six sprawling songs gradually unravel throughout their lengthy running times, with clean, tangled-up guitar lines that feel simultaneously rudimentary and brilliant. Spiderland favors the quiet-loud formula that a lot of '90s rock bands did, but unlike grunge, it's mostly quiet. It feels dreary, bleak, and as grayscale as the iconic photo on the album cover (taken by the one and only Will Oldham, who would go on to form Palace and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and frequently collaborate with David Pajo). It's so clear when you listen to this album today that this is ground zero for post-rock, but other post-rock bands just don't sound like this.
As with The Velvet Underground's debut, the entire concept of Spiderland is influential. Spiderland taught bands how to be ambitious and modest at the same time. As punk-derived bands made increasingly complex music throughout the past 30 years, a good chunk of them were operating directly or indirectly in the spirit of Spiderland. Spiderland isn't Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness -- albums that were tweaked and embellished until they became the masterpieces that their authors intended; Slint recorded this album in literally four days. It helped establish the existence of the accidental masterpiece. When you look at something like American Football's debut, another Midwest post-rock/math rock/emo album that was a blip at first and legendary today, it's easy to see how they were following in the footsteps of Spiderland.
Much has been made over the years about how influential Spiderland was, but we wouldn't still be talking about it today if its greatest legacy was paving the way for other bands. The reason it's still worth talking about is because it's still a timeless record. It didn't sound like "1991" when it came out, and it doesn't sound dated today. It exists in a world of its own, and it attracts new fans year after year because you can't really get the experience that this album offers any other way.
Stream Spiderland below and pick up a vinyl copy in our shop.
Also in our shop: Slint's self-titled EP, which was recorded with Steve Albini in 1989 but shelved and not released until 1994, after the band had already broken up. It has two lengthy tracks, including an alternate version of "Rhoda" from Tweez, and the entirely instrumental EP is a crucial part of Slint's story and the development of post-rock. One reviewer called it Slint's "most important release."
For more on Slint, we recommend the Lance Bangs documentary Breadcrumb Trail.