The two main creative forces in Slint, vocalist/guitarist Brian McMahan and drummer/guitarist/vocalist Britt Walford, both played in the Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait in the mid-1980s. Along with guitarist David Pajo and bassist Ethan Buckler, they formed Slint in 1986.
Slint’s debut album Tweez, belatedly released in 1989, wasn’t a success. Slint had already broken up when their second album Spiderland was released. Apart from a glowing review from notable producer Steve Albini in Melody Maker, Spiderland largely went unnoticed at the time of release. Its stature, however, has grown over the years, to the point where it’s considered highly influential and a fixture on best albums of all time lists.
With McMahan’s raw vocals and background in Squirrel Bait, Slint’s music is rooted in punk. But at the same time it’s surprisingly sophisticated, with intricate guitar lines, extreme dynamic shifts, and tempo changes. At the time, critics compared the group to acts like King Crimson, but Spiderland bass player Todd Brashear stated that the group weren’t familiar with the progressive rockers, and that instead an important influence was Metallica: “I’m not saying Spiderland sounds like Metallica but they had those song structures, the loud parts and the quiet parts.”1
Along with Talk Talk, who used entirely different textures in their deconstruction of rock, Slint are credited with launching the post-rock style of music, as well as math-rock. Bands to follow in their wake include Mogwai and Sigur Rós.
The iconic cover photo for Spiderland was taken by another notable Louisville musician, Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It was taken in the lake of an abandoned quarry. Because the group broke up before Spiderland was released, and because only a few fans had seen their live shows, there was a mystique around Slint, and the iconic cover shot only added to the intrigue.
Given the subsequent acclaim for Spiderland, Slint have re-convened periodically to play live shows. After Slint’s breakup, Walford drummed for The Breeders while David Pajo played for a range of bands including Tortoise and Billy Corgan’s Zwan.
Why Spiderland is Slint’s Best Album
Picking Spiderland as Slint’s best album isn’t controversial – Slint only recorded two albums, and their first, Tweez, is formative in comparison to the more fully developed Spiderland.
A surprisingly funky drum track drives this song which, like much of Slint’s material, alternates between low key spoken sections and intense screaming from McMahan. Slint clearly aren’t a hook-focused band, but the high pitched lead guitar line is the most memorable moment on Spiderland. The guitar parts were written by Walford.
The longest song on Spiderland, ‘Washer’ simmers gently before erupting into final spasms of guitar noise. Pajo said “We’ll come back to the main riff, which is pretty melodic in a minor key, and we’ll introduce a new riff that’ll clash with it. Like we’ll just hit notes that sound wrong. That was a way of building tension, which is what the whole song is about.”2
Good Morning, Captain
The final song on Spiderland is an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a poem that also inspired works by Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. The band’s terse, intertwining guitars are captivating, while the strain of McMahan’s screams caused him to become physically sick.
Do the Experts Agree?
Spiderland took a long time to make an impact, although one writer who picked up on it immediately was Steve Albini, producer of Tweez. “In its best state, rock music invigorates me, changes my mood, triggers introspection or envelopes me with sheer sound. Spiderland does all those things, simultaneously and in turns… In 10 years it will be a landmark and you’ll have to scramble to buy a copy then. Beat the rush.“
David Fricke mentioned Spiderland briefly in a 1991 Rolling Stone column, saying that “For introspective fuzz-tone throb, you couldn’t do much better this year than Spiderland.” In the 2004 Rolling Stone record guide it was dismissed with “The absence of anything resembling a tune continues to nag…”
On the website Rate Your Music, Spiderland is ranked as Slint’s best album, and the #37 best album of all time, with a average rating of 4.13/5.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Spiderland is ranked as Slint’s best album, as the 290th best album of all time.
Spiderland is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.