By Adam Brill ’17
Back in “the day,” (around 11th grade), I thought I was so cool because I bought CD’s. It was such a contrarian move in the days of digital media, piracy, and streaming. Looking back, the compact disc is such an odd form of music distribution. Aesthetically, it has none of the charm of the vinyl. Functionally, its much more fragile than a tape. The casing is frequently two brittle and right angular pieces of plastic, which will automatically break if you drop them. The dimensions don’t provide artists much room for clever or artistic booklets. Rather than be hindered by this strange medium of distribution, Slint used it perfectly on their CD release of “Spiderland.” My CD copy of “Spiderland,” frankly, annoys the shit out of me. The case features the now iconic black and white photo of the band treading water in a lake by a quarry. Once you open the case, there is simply a sheet of paper with the song titles and a black and white photo of a spider crawling over a light. There is absolutely zero color or pizazz to the album art. The CD itself has literally nothing on it. The reason it annoys the shit out of me is that the front and the back of the compact disc are completely indistinguishable. Many a time I have popped that disc into my car CD player and my car flashes the error because I have put it in upside down. Just thinking about these minor inconveniences causes me to think “fuck you Slint being all dark and angsty and shit.”
However, I can’t get too bothered at this excuse for “album art.” This stark packaging fits this landmark indie album better than it would fit most albums. Calling albums “dark” or “intimate” has become such a platitude, but “Spiderland” deserves this description. The album, while it goes through ebbs and flows of quiet and noise, consistently retains an uncompromising dark atmosphere. The whole album has eerie melodic lines. Much like a lot of alt-rock being put out in the late 80’s and early 90’s, “Spiderland” utilizes quick shifts of volume level in order to heighten the catharsis reached with each loud noise explosion. Immediately, they demonstrate this with the headbanging “Breadcrumb Trail.” David Pajo’s undistorted lead guitar plays an atypical riff in an odd time signature along with some eerie harmonics. When the distortion kicks in, these clean harmonics turn to shrieks. Sure, lead singer Brian McMahan’s lyrics and delivery can occasionally sound corny or forced, but overall, he effectively furthers the angsty and creepy mood of the album. “Breadcrumb Trail’s” post-chorus section showcases a particularly strong example of McMahan’s execution. He hauntingly delivers the lines:
“The girl falters as she steps down from the platform.
She clutches her stomach, and begins to heave.
The ticket-taker smiles, and the last car is ready.
Who told you that you could leave?”
This opener definitely walks the line between being creepy and just plain ridiculous. Lyrically, it seemingly tell of an interaction with a fortune-teller at a carnival. However, during this particular moment, the song’s darkness is downright chilling. Slint follow this creepy moment with a guitar solo, which gives way to howling feedback. This feedback disintegrates back into the clean opening riffs.
After the first two tracks (the second track, “Nosferatu Man” is another great headbanger), Slint settle into their loud-soft dynamic shifts. This technique works to perfection on tracks like “Washer” and “Good Morning, Captain.” Such songs leave the listener in constant anticipation of something more as the clean guitars quietly glisten through some foreboding minor key riffs and the drums minimally roll through fills. Slint will occasionally tease this expectation with subdued hints at distortion. On “Washer,” Slint repeat what is probably the album’s most gorgeous riff. A few times, a little noise appears, but it is always quickly contained. At the end, Slint have a restrained loud guitar solo. The drums add some accented fills to the beautiful shimmering noise. The main riff returns and slowly fades to silence. On “Good Morning, Captain,” Slint have a few mini noisy sections, which are quickly clipped and bookended by the song’s repeating melodic theme. However, the end of the song is the album’s most climatic moment (one of the most climatic moments of any album I’ve heard for that matter). The noise returns and McMahan quietly whispers:
And I miss you
I miss you
I’ve grown taller now
I want the police to be notified
I’ll make it up to you
I swear, I’ll make it up to you.”
Right at the end of this ominous speech, McMahan screams “I miss you!” repeatedly. His voice has run thin at this point and it’s a haunting, beautiful, captivating, and intimate moment. Supposedly, the recording process of “Spiderland” happened over four emotionally draining and rather traumatic days (legend has it that various members of the band were institutionalized as a result). When McMahan screams, his voice has literally been shot during the recording process. It’s rare to find the sort of vocal timbre that McMahan’s voice reaches on this song and when it happens, it’s something special. Pajo lays on the power chords to add power and depth to McMahan’s vocal breakdown.
Is “Spiderland” a little over the top and melodramatic sometimes? Sure. Are there moments where it toys a little too much with the quiet dynamic at the risk of getting dull? Probs. “Spiderland” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a damn good album that absolutely deserves its legendary status. The high points are absolutely spectacular. In between these moments, the album is held together by an incredibly tight performance of weird rhythms and timbres. Only someone as talented as Pajo, one of the more underrated musicians of his generation, could flawlessly execute such original material. For all the moody math rock and post rock that followed in Slint’s footsteps, none ever equaled the dark beauty and grace found in “Spiderland.”