Monday, November 27, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #193 - Slint – Spiderland (Touch & Go, 1991)

When I was in high school, I was obsessed with what my friends and I called “noise rock.” Really, this was just an umbrella term for anything angular, dissonant and somewhat difficult to listen to. It may have started when my older cousin introduced me to one of my first favorite bands, the Butthole Surfers, before I was even old enough to shave, but it really took root in my teenage years. I immersed myself in all things Amphetamine Reptile, Boner Records, Sub Pop and so many more. The Touch & Go label out of Chicago was, in addition to being home to the Butthole Surfers at the time, one of my go-to fixations. I bought as many Touch & Go releases as I could get my hands on. And even in those pre-internet days, this wasn’t that difficult. Each T&G release came with a full fold-out catalog with all their releases and the releases from all their subsidiary labels. I bet I had one of those catalogs in my pocket at all times throughout the ‘90s. I used them as a kind of checklist of records to buy and artists to check out. The T&G catalog not only gave me an education on current roster giants like the Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill and Tortoise, but also hipped me to legends like Glenn Branca, the Virgin Prunes and Chrome whose reissues and new material had found homes on the label. One band that always stood out from the rest to me was Louisville, Kentucky’s Slint.

Unless you’ve never read anything to do with music ever, you’ve probably at least seen the name Slint come up in print at some point in your life. They only put out two full-length records and an EP in their short time as a band, yet they are one of the most influential and important bands in the history of rock. Though they were only teenagers when they started the band, they were already kind of scenester veterans, having formed out of the ashes of hardcore punk band Squirrel Bait. Slint’s debut, Tweez, is a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s their second and final album, 1991’s Spiderland, that really garners them the attention that they so richly deserve.

Spiderland came two years after the group’s debut. Back to back, the records sound like two completely different bands. It’s as though in those two years, the members of Slint all went through profound and possibly traumatic personal changes and wrote an album to go along with them. Let’s start with the lyrics, which were actually written during the recording of the sessions at the last minute. The songs deal with topics such as loss, alienation, guilt and paranoia. And, ho-lee shit, can you ever hear that shine through! The vocals are mostly hushed, ominous whispers or nervous spoken bits, alternated with occasional volcanic outbursts of austere shouting and desperate screaming. These dramatic dynamic shifts, combined with the group’s love of odd time signatures, add to the unease that is felt throughout the album. The tension begins immediately, as the harmonic bursts of opener “Breadcrumb Trail” begin an odd tale of carnival folk. “Nosferatu Man,” another high point in the record, is inspired by the F.W. Murnau silent film Nosferatu and could have served well as a soundtrack piece to the film with its jagged, dissonant lead riff and its crawling 5/4 time signature. The album’s closer, “Good Morning, Captain” is perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Slintosity, as it recalls a story of a sunken ship from the vessel’s only survivor. The lyrics are of course delivered in (guitarist/vocalist) Brian McMahan’s trademark mumbled monotone, but the song culminates in the album’s bleakest moment: the band explodes into a feedback-drenched cacophony while McMahan desperately screams “I miss you” over and over.

Spiderland was recorded in four days. Steve Albini, who recorded Tweez, was not called back in to man the boards. Instead, the band opted for Brian Paulson, known for his “live sound” recording technique. The creation of Spiderland was said to be so difficult and grueling an experience for the band that at least one member rumored to have checked himself into a psychiatric hospital upon the album’s completion. Slint themselves disbanded completely before the album even hit store shelves. Even the black and white cover photo (shot by friend of the band Will Oldham) of the four band members treading water up to their necks while wearing somewhat deranged grins suggests that something dark and unusual is contained within.

Spiderland’s legacy continues to grow even today. It is, after all, the album that basically invented modern day “post-rock” in all of its forms (post-metal, post-hardcore, post-whatever the hell). And if you don’t believe that, just listen to the album. Upon repeated listens, it will start to make sense to you why Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are often lumped into the same category as vastly different bands like Pelican and Isis. You can hear all of those bands in Slint’s Spiderland. There is a famous quote regarding The Velvet Underground, stating that (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t feel like looking up the exact quote) not many copies of the Velvet’s debut sold, but everyone who bought one started a band. I think the same could apply to Slint. They didn’t make a huge splash at the time, but the ripples from that small splash can still be felt today.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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