When Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite says that hearing Slint was, to him, a moment comparable to a generation previous first encountering The Velvet Underground – incredibly influential, and basically like nothing experienced before – it’s tempting to consider his words hyperbole, exaggeration, aggrandisement influenced by nostalgia.
And yet, hearing ‘Spiderland’ in 2014, no sepia-toned memories are necessary for its power to connect with all the force it did on release in 1991. It still rocks, rolls and rumbles, twitches and tumbles, so very excellently.
This band – a (then) young foursome from Louisville, Kentucky – had already recorded one album, ‘Tweez’, prior to beginning ‘Spiderland’. But it was their second and final long-player that would prove their definitive statement, a record that laid the foundations of post-rock but manages to sound somehow removed from what that genre has come to mean in the 21st century.
Yes, there are builds here, gradually evolving songs that climax with a fury telegraphed enough but never compromised of impact. But it’s a scratchy, hissing thing, ‘Spiderland’, alive like few instances of taut, controlled rock music can be. You can hear its breaths between the beats, before the breaks – at 1:50 into ‘Don, Aman’; 2:13 in ‘Nosferatu Man’, right before the drums come back in like flaming hammers.
Recorded beside the relatively unknown Brian Paulson of the band Man Sized Action – ‘Tweez’ had been worked on beside Steve Albini – ‘Spiderland’ runs to just six tracks, to under 40 minutes of music, and much of it exists in a sort of monitored stasis, awaiting the transition into electric life. But at its peaks, this collection strikes like lightning to the temples, the spaces between the shocks as essential to the overall mix as anything cranked up to breaking point.
These instances of frenzied percussion and stabbed guitars come rarely, so as to greater spotlight their force: the second phase (to finish) of ‘Nosferatu Man’; the final two, heaving minutes of ‘Washer’. Elsewhere there is contrasting calm, the balance between points more brilliantly accomplished here than any comparable dynamic shifts that a band like The xx has been celebrated for. The five minutes of ‘For Dinner…’ deal in drama set to a more modest tempo, but the song is every second as effective of entrancement as the louder passages surrounding it.
But everything reaches a head with the final song – with the final moments of the final song. With ‘Good Morning, Captain’. “It’s an end that you’re not really expecting, after what’s come before – just devastating.” Braithwaite’s words again there, from his own account of ‘Spiderland’ (read it here). And it’s hard to disagree with the Scot’s assessment of this album’s triumphantly tragic coda, an arrangement that lurches and rolls, carried on a constant squall, before absolutely erupting. Never have three simple words – “I miss you” – been so devastatingly spoken. So affectingly screamed.
Touch & Go’s deluxe repackaging of ‘Spiderland’ – the reason why this review is here in the first place – features a wealth of demos, outtakes and post-‘Spiderland’ recordings, taking the total audio tracks to 20. The demo version of ‘Good Morning, Captain’ is the same song caught in a thick mist, even less sure of its heading, its Morse code-like chimes bouncing back off an impassable storm wall. What it does convey better than the final take is the story of the song, as here the vocals are crystal clear – on the ‘Spiderland’ version they’re deliberately drowned in washes of guitar.
An outtake, ‘Glenn’, is a longer version of the first ‘Untitled’ track that appeared on Slint’s 1994-released, 1989-recorded ‘Untitled’ EP. Here, it’s a little more ponderous, but loses none of the better-known version’s excellently measured menace. ‘Pam’, presented in three stages of completion, is a riot compared to the main ‘Spiderland’ tracks, more in tune with a band like Fugazi than any act drawing its own inspiration from Slint’s then-singular post-rock tropes. A live recording of ‘Cortez The Killer’ from 1989 showcases how accomplished these four musicians were at such a young age. Another line from Braithwaite: “The way these kids could play is frightening.” Again, no argument from us. Lance Bangs’ documentary, Breadcrumb Trail (named after ‘Spiderland’’s opener), is also featured in the box set – see its trailer below.
With the band playing again now, taking these songs to whole new audiences, it’s reasonable to think that Slint might go the way of Pixies and Blondie and take their reformation back into the studio. Would a new Slint album match the majesty of ‘Spiderland’? Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter, ultimately, as this masterpiece isn’t dulling any time soon. Working on the premise that they were Generation X’s own Velvet Underground, this is their ‘White Light/White Heat’, and one of the most important rock records of all time.
Words: Mike Diver
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