Slint’s music has always felt like a soundtrack to their own disappearance. Even the cover of 1991’s Spiderland, their final and most acclaimed album, looks like the “last sighting” photograph on the side of a milk carton. This month, Spiderland turns 30 amongst a crop of recent releases from black midi, IDLES, and Black Country, New Road. All of these groups pull the most direct reference from Slint’s musical stylings seen since the '90s heyday of their influence. Perhaps Slint’s preemptive breakup has stopped the contents of Spiderland from aging. But it’s the band’s influence on the face of indie that remains their greatest legacy today.
In his review on release, Steve Albini predicted as much—advocating that “in ten years it will be a landmark and you’ll have to scramble to buy a copy then.” This may have been a self–fulfilling prophecy coming from the producer, since his impact on popular music owes a sizable debt to Slint. Alternative masterpieces of the era, like PJ Harvey’s tenacious Rid Of Me, bear the hallmarks of Steve Albini’s engineering: taut, sparse percussion–driven instrumentation and quiet–loud–quiet dynamic progression. These are also Spiderland’s most celebrated features, which can't be a coincidence. Slint has remained so influential in part because an album like Rid of Me could flesh out the hollow shell of rock they left behind, blending it with genres like swampy American blues to create something compelling and novel.
Slint’s music is often labeled as “post–rock,” but that feels incidental to their experimentation with the most naked elements of the genre. Spiderland feels at times like a direct response to the bloated excesses of late '80s populist rock. The material that the band produced is guitar music with all of the pop extracted out of it. Popular rock depends on predictable verse–chorus structure, melody, and harmony. In contrast, Spiderland relies on dissonance, and draws power from subverting expectations and momentum from shifting dynamics. All of these traits are displayed on the slithering “Nosferatu Man.” A chugging, almost martial rhythm sits at the center, while the twin guitars of Brian McMahan and David Pajo travel overtop in elliptical patterns rather than catchy hooks.
In a similarly off–putting manner, McMahan’s vocals on the record alternate between atonal and excruciatingly pleading. Take the spoken word on album opener, “Breadcrumb Trail,” which at first sounds overheard from a radio. The sensation of lyrics broadcasted from the past lends the narratives on Spiderland the quality of a foregone conclusion, which dovetails with the group’s premature disbandment before the album was even released.
The central image of “Breadcrumb Trail” is a rollercoaster: “Creeping up into the sky / Stopping, at the top, and then starting down.” Riding a rollercoaster serves as an apt metaphor for the peaks, valleys, and disarming swerves of the music. However, this is not any sort of fun and games: Even the innocent tale of a carnival is enveloped in the pallor of creeping dread that never lets up for the album’s runtime.
Three tracks in, and this music already plays with expectations. When the guitars on “Don Aman” go quiet, the song primes you for what feels like an inevitable drop. The strums ratchet up in volume and distortion, only for the song to rip the rug out from under you and come back down dejectedly. This proves to be an apt reflection of the album's lyrical content, which is replete with adolescent frustration. The interplay on Spiderland manifests social anxiety before the fact with its menacing crescendos, yet can just as well capture disappointment when it deprives us of a cathartic release.
The odd time signatures of Slint songs like “Don Aman” laid much of the framework for math–rock. Hailing from that genre, black midi have likewise set out to cultivate an anti–pop aesthetic via an unstable trash fire of guitars and electronics. At its peak, as on “953,” this everything–but–the–kitchen–sink approach rides a fine line between chaos and Slint’s own stringent control. While the instruments used as black midi’s foundation are the same as those in Spiderland, they are layered and processed until they start to resemble the band’s eponymous online trend. However, the overload of 2019’s Schlagenheim leaves little room for the measured and thoughtful storytelling of the album that inspired it.
This year also saw the release of For the first time, from fellow brits Black Country, New Road. The band’s sonics are even closer in line with Slint, but they expand their palette with strains of traditional Ashekanazi Klezmer music. The focal point of their songs is Isaac Wood’s debauched poetry, which combines slanderous tales with Gen Z’s referentiality (“She loves pop culture / She’s got ‘thank u, next’ stuck in her head”). Lyrics like these impart timeliness in place of Slint’s displacement from time. “Sunglasses,” in particular, is the song that most merits Black Country’s current prestige. The track wrangles classic post–rock grooves as a stage for Wood’s tortured breakdown, commanding to “fuck me like you mean it this time Isaac.” What’s most impressive is how that hook will still manage to lodge itself in your head.
Even a cut like “Sunglasses” can’t measure up to the closing track “Good Morning, Captain,” which remains the crown jewel of Spiderland and Slint’s catalog. The production this time is a bass–forward mix, which is distinct from the rest of the album in that respect. It is probably the most emulated by modern post–punk bands like IDLES, as on “Never Fight A Man With A Perm.” The narrative of “Good Morning, Captain” is engrossing and tragic, as McMahan embodies a ship captain who regrets leaving his family while his boat sinks in the distance.
There is an anecdote, attributed to Brian Eno, about the Velvet Underground: The band only sold 30,000 copies of their debut on release, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band. The same assertion could be credibly made for Slint’s Spiderland, if for no other reason than the last minute of “Good Morning, Captain.” When the song closes with Brian McMahan’s expressive howl of three simple words, “I miss you,” it feels like a new era of music being born—kicking and screaming, from a band that has already vanished.