FOCUS // Spiderland: A Math Rock Classic Turns 25

2014slintpress300114When Touch & Go Records released Slint’s Spiderland on March 26, 1991, the album barely made a ripple in the contemporary music scene of the day and the band, which at the time had very little exposure anywhere, broke up soon after its release. The slow burn of Spiderland’s success and now enduring popularity mirrors the music found on the album itself. Spiderland, perhaps more than any album of the 1990’s, is the ‘anti-rock’ rock album. When Slint formed in 1986, in Louisville, Kentucky, the goal of the band was to make music that was different, plain and simple. Drummer Britt Walford has noted many times over the years that because the band was so young when they formed (Britt being the youngest member of the group and was 16 when the band formed) they didn’t even think about trying to be successful or have any kind of popularity, the focus of the group was to write new and different music than what they’ve been exposed to. By 1989, Britt Walford and guitarist/vocalist Brian McMahon lived in Chicago, IL, attending Northwestern University and when they came home that summer is when most of the music of Spiderland was written. The album itself was not recorded until a year later in the summer of 1990, and released the following spring.

Spiderland is unique in the sense that it is hard to derive what musical influences the band had when writing the album. One of the few albums that stick out as having influenced Spiderland and has a shared pro-longed discovery and success is the 1974 King Crimson album Red, released immediately prior to the band breaking up (though they re-united several years later). Red was not a huge success upon its release, and it’s certainly not considered a classic, yet many credit it as being not only arguably King Crimson’s best album, but one of the best rock albums of the 1970’s. While the use of odd time signatures and unconventional song structures still occurred after Red, Spiderland is really the first album that grabbed the essence of what made an album like Red stand out, the dark and ominous music coupled with bleak and self-reflective lyrics that serve as the bedrock for powerful and muscular riffs that centered around driving rhythms, and revitalized those elements in a contemporary musical setting and made Spiderland come across as timeless instead of dated as many prog rock and prog influenced albums of the time sounded.

There is endless debate on when math-rock, post-rock, emo, post-hardcore music technically began, and more debate of what bands should be credited with those genres’ creation, and whether or not Slint is the first math-rock band, what they laid out in Spiderland is the quintessential blueprint that math-rock and post-rock followed for the decade of the 1990’s, and there wasn’t a new paradigm in math-rock until the Don Caballero album American Don in 2000, which ushered in the blueprint for song crafting through the use of loop pedals and guitar tapping, which has become commonplace in math rock over the past decade. More importantly, Spiderland is a landmark crossover album that weaved between now what we call math rock, post rock, post hardcore, and emo and it’s hard to point to an album that did this prior to.

The opening track “Breadcrumb Trail” sets up the rest of the album, and the music meanders between great dynamic play with guitars and drums as the lyrics equally meander in telling a narrative story about a guy at what is seemingly a carnival or fair and visits a fortune teller and convinces her to go on a roller coaster with him. As straight forward as that narrative seems, the beauty of Brian McMahon’s lyrics and well as his vocal delivery is in the subtle complexities that lie underneath. A defining musical element of Spiderland is subtle complexity. The second track “Nosferatu Man” is the most important song for the evolution of math rock on the album. The verses are in 5/4 with the drums not playing a 4/4 beat and then adding an extra snare hit on beat 5, which makes the downbeat on one very obvious. Britt Walford’s drumming is incredibly fluid and his drum patterns breathe between the odd-rhythm patterns laid down by guitars, and it makes the verses in 5/4 and choruses in 6/4 seem fairly straightforward. But it isn’t. During the bride of the song the guitars switch between a pattern that consists of a measure in 9/4 followed by a measure of 6/4, but Britt plays the drums straight through the pattern as if the song is in 4/4, and it gives the illusion of simplicity and the song is full of subtle complexity.


Perhaps when people ask what is math rock, the defining point of “Nosferatu Man” is it’s a song that consists of multiple different time signatures that when trying to analyze gets very complicated, but to a casual listener the complex rhythm patterns don’t get in the way of your enjoyment of the music and melodies that are happening in the song, and this is perhaps what really defines math rock as a genre of creating music that contains rhythmic complexity while not having the music be self-contained in the complexity of the presented rhythms. It’s not prog, it’s not a punk song that just happens to be in an odd-time signature, it’s something more than that. In the same way the last track on Spiderland, “Good Morning Captain” is another narrative piece that slowly builds throughout until the final climax, which when hit is like the reveal in a story and the moment the entire album has been building towards and Brian McMahon’s decision to scream the repeated final vocal line of “I Miss You” one could argue serves as the missing link in the evolutionary branch of emo that takes the genre from emotional hardcore of bands like Embrace and Rites of Spring and mixes it with post rock and math rock’s subtle complexity, and a Midwestern influence to set it on the course to what many would consider emo today. On side 2 the track “Washer” mixes the dynamic musical build-up many would classify as essential to contemporary post rock music. whilst using emotive vocals and reflective lyrics, such as “I know, it’s dark outside. Don’t be afraid. Every time I ever cried for fear, was just a mistake that I made. Wash yourself in your tears, and build your church on the strength of your faith”. ‘For Dinner…’ is perhaps the most overlooked track on the album, being the only instrumental song, but it is also one of the most fascinating and complex songs on the album. The entire song is an exercise in dynamics and a beautifully played composition. The song slowly murks its way through guided by a mercifully quiet guitar melody delivered by David Pajo, and as the song reaches the bridge and finally starts to build to what seems will be a dynamically loud climax, after 5 seconds of sound like a real “rock song” it immediately plunges back to the depths of a slow and quite drone. The beauty of the song is it doesn’t deliver what you anticipate and expect it to do. That’s part of the timelessness of Spiderland: it doesn’t play to any music clichés and instead it delivers a world though a new set of musical lenses where anything is possible.

slinteSpiderland’s success didn’t come until well after a decade of its release, and Slint is really one of the first bands to become popular and have a career resurgence due to the internet and their profound influence on contemporary bands. Brian Eno, when once talking about the influence of The Velvet Underground said that, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”. Spiderland has proven to be the modern equivalent of this. In the Lester Bangs documentary Breadcrumb Trail, Steve Albini admits that the sound production of Spiderland had a huge influence on how he recorded albums after hearing it. In 1991, the biggest band taking off in the world was Nirvana and Seattle became the epicenter for 90’s grunge music. While this movement was happening in Seattle, the post rock revolution was just beginning in Chicago and Spiderland is in many ways what lighted that ignition. David Pajo went on to play with Tortoise on their ground-breaking album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, but Spiderland served as the album that sparked Pajo’s collaboration with Tortoise. Besides Steve Albini and Tortoise, other fans of Slint were The Jesus Lizard, and incidentally their song “Mouth Breather” is about Britt Walford. Nirvana released a split with The Jesus Lizard, one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands and they recruited Steve Albini to record their album In Utero. Thus, while Nirvana were kings of the world and the center of mainstream attention, much of the music they were influenced by and people they wanted to work with were all early adapters of Slint, and the breadcrumb trails of 90’s grunge and alternative rock can also be traced back to Spiderland. The legacy and mythos of Spiderland has only grown further since their newly found popularity of the 21st Century, and while their influence is already rooted in the proliferation of countless genres, as they continue to reach new fans and a younger audience it’s more likely you won’t hear the words Slint or Spiderland disappear anytime soon in the lexicon on underground and independent music, and for that we should all be thankful.