Saturday, May 11, 2024

Steve Albini RIP - his review of Slint's Spiderland (Melody Maker, March 30, 1991)


Apparently this review was not commissioned - it just arrived in the mail and reviews editor Everett True ran it. 

Albini actually started as a music  journalist, writing for zines while at college even as he was making his first dabbles into music. 

No shortage of caustic opinions about music - some of which seem idiotic to me, but at least they were categorical and vehemently expressed. 

Here's Steve in enthusiast mode:

Enthusiasm but also some caustic opinions in this not Rebellious Jukebox but  Invisible Jukebox  (The Wire, April 1994) - particularly mordant re John Zorn, the Beatles and Black Sabbath. 

Then there's the Forced Exposure writing, much of which should probably have a veil drawn over it (and which he recanted, advisedly, given that some of the non-music provocations were indefensible).  

The Eye Witness Record Reviews is a classic of sorts, though - a conceptual innovation, and oh so mean about his clients. (He later retracted some of the acidic jibes at e.g. Pixies. If ever "mellowing with age" was a good thing, so it was with Steve Albini).  

Look out for the appearance of the phrase "Bad Music Era" which might be where I picked it up from, although I think it was used a bunch of times by different people at Forced Exposure. However, they were referring to the pre-punk '70s, as opposed to the mid-80s.

Eyewitness Record Reviews by Steve Albini

from Forced Exposure #17, 1991:

Record reviewers have been at an enormous disadvantage since the advent of the multi-track recording in the late 1950s. No longer can any assumptions be made about the conditions under which a record was recorded. I am now able to write the first truly informed series of record reviews since the dawn of that accursed technology. I can comment on records I saw being made. When I am hired to record a band, I make it plain to my clients that I do not wish to be associated with their charming little records. I will do a good job for them, but that does not include shouldering any responsibility for their lousy tastes and mistakes.

When I was employed as a photo retoucher, I was often involved in the alteration of reality for the noble purpose of increasing cigarette sales. Not once did I expect or desire to see "produced by Steve Albini" on a Marlboro ad, simply because it was this, and not some poor other sap, who toned down the excessive lipgloss on Darryl's pout or removed the unfortunate sarcoma from his forehead. I apply the same logic to my current occupation. Often these clients disregard my wishes and publicize the fact that I worked on their records. Oh, man. Today, they get their just desserts. I will make little comment about the actual music on any of these records (figuring everybody has formed an opinion already or couldn't care less), and will say nothing except "Bless you" about those who have respected my anonymity.

A word about my fees: I charge whatever the hell I feel like at the moment, based on the client's ability to pay, how nice the band members are, the size and directly-proportional gullibility of the record label, and whether or not they got the rock. For example, Slint or Mudhead I would lend money to. The Didjits or Fugazi I would do for free. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and Jesus Lizard would pay beans. Most everybody else pays $150 -- $450 a day, except that anybody on a major label gets fucked whole-dong outright, figuring that they're never going to get paid anyway, unless it's somebody like Ministry or Depeche Mode or Guns 'n Roses or Bullet La Volta who suck so wildly that I wouldn't endure them for a fortune.

The straight skinny from an eyewitness:

The Pixies "Surfer Rosa" LP: 

A patchwork pinch loaf from a band who a their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock. Their willingness to be "guided" by their manager, their record company and their producers is unparalleled. Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.

Except that I got to rewrite their songs with a razorblade, thought the drums sounded nice, and managed to get Nate the Impaler on the LP as a cameo, I remember nothing about this album, although I thought it was pretty good at the time. During the recording, a sibling of the sexual partner of a Pixie was lounging around making little fuck me noises, so I took her home and got stiffed. Had to retreat to Byron's "den of satisfaction" and run a batch off by hand. I seem to remember that their Filipino guitar player was pro-Marcos, but I could be wrong. The album took about a week maybe two all tolled. Fee: $1,500.

I later recorded a single track with them for a label-stroke compilation album. The band had been getting the Big High Building "pampered performer" treatment for a couple of years by then and were consequently bored and dour. It took a couple of hours after dinner one night. Fee: $4,000. About a year later, Bob Krasnow, the geeb at Elektra's Big High Building who fathered this dumb idea sent me a truly revolting nickel-and-gold Omega wristwatch (the kind Record Producers wear), with tacky Biz inscription and tacky presentation case. As soon as somebody at the pool room offers me what it's worth, I'm gonna have a hell of a nice dinner.

The Wedding Present "Brassneck" single: 

I was told they wanted to record three songs, we ended up recording six, the most embarrassing of which is an as-yet-unreleased adenoidal rendition of Penetration's "Don't Dictate." I should say right out that the band are truly swell guys. Nice enough to go our with your sister and everything, but Jesus, are they vulnerable.

They started out like any independent band, and now are in the unenviable position of trying to operate like one while unquestionably in the jaws of a Big High Building-type record company. These poor guys are under the delusion that the staff of RCA actually gives a shit about whether they draw breath or not. They sweat their tours out in a tiny rented van, pinching every penny, lost in the assumption that the label dorks back in the Big High Building "feel" for them in some way.

Meanwhile, I'm chatski on the cellular phone in the limo, keeping my appointment with the club car of a Britrail, where I'll be treated to a fucking filet on my way to my private room in the four star Hotel Picadilly in Manchester (where the three telephones and electric towel warmer are an ergonomic distance away from the toilet, but the closed-circuit porn movies have the penetrations and cum shots excised.) "Not to worry," the grand dork says, snapping the Amex down on whatever Formica is handy, "it's recoupable." It took about four days. Fee: $9,500 plus "niceties."

The band recorded three songs in Chicago during a break in their US tour, and while the music was otherwise a big improvement over the songs recorded for "Brassneck," I have to report that they also did a version of a Steve Harley song called "Make Me Smile." Supposedly this was a smash hit in the Bad Music Era across the pond, but back in Montana I only knew one guy who ever listened to Steve Harley. He was a Sparks fan and he later died of a brain tumor. I'm not going to risk it myself. Fee: $4,260.

The Breeders "Pod" LP

For reasons too subtle to describe accurately [boing! -- Hat Ed.], I really enjoyed going to Scotland and working on this. The actual record is nothing special, of course, but I have a much deeper understanding of the twin phenomena of synchronous menses and breast swelling than I previously would have dreamed.

The only chafingly unpleasant thing about the experience was an unbearable shithead gopher who loitered around the studio during those hours when he wasn't actually engaged in plugging the guitar player (the only function he truly served). Josephine, the bass player, looks quite a bit like an emu, except that her hair is thinner. The studio owner had a pathological fear of raw eggs, and entertained us with stories about the ex-Bay City Roller he buys beef from. His wife, a voluptuous, once-attractive singer, would occasionally strip down to her frillies at the bountiful dinner table.

I pounded everybody through the album in about a week, but the label insisted that we stay at the studio and dream up another three weeks of work for me to do. The drummer accepted any excuse to go across the road to the pub and get stupid drunk, and finished one evening dancing in the arms of a Freemason transvestite named "Dora" (John). On the last night in Scotland, the drummer went to a meeting of The Angler's Club, and didn't return until well after closing time. Presented to the front door by two Anglers, each holding an elbow (the little drummer's legs had failed hours earlier), Shannon was completely blackened with soot from the fire, except for bright blue rings drawn with pool table chalk around nose and chin. Anglers, I swear!

The well-plugged guitar player (noted above) tipped me to a bit of Boston gossip. It seems that Suzy Rust has been getting some social mileage out of a rumor that she and I are well-acquainted with the contours of each other's nakedness, and once traded orgasms in the growler at Chet's. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I have never been in the toilet at Chet's. Fee: $4,000.

Tad "Salt Lick" EP:

 There has been debate in some quarters about the validity of the whole Tad thing. Such talk comes from mouths unassociated with either ears or brains. That Tad now introduces himself as "Tiny" whenever he gets a chance is only further evidence of apparent genius. His first words after stepping off the plane and enveloping my forequarter with a handshake however, were, "Say, do you know where we can get any pot?" Fortunately, a terrible band of my acquaintance was recording in the studio upstairs from us, with a singer known to travel with commercial quantities. "I'm not carrying that much pot nowadays," said the singer, his expression inverting. "I'm tired of getting arrested all the time." Tad was not a happy Tad that weekend.Fee: $600.

Poster Children "Flower Power" LP: 

They had a really fruity drummer for a while, but I think he died of the syph. This one took two days. Fee: $300.

Daisy Chain Reaction LP: 

Their current drummer, Crazy Bob, does occasionally scream "Hey, fuck me in the ass Steve, right here, right now!" from across a crowded room at me, but somehow that isn't as irritating as wearing a beret and scarf simultaneously. While recording their second record, Crazy Bob got to meet Aerosmith, whose drummer shared this joke with him: How do you get a nun pregnant? -- Fuck her. I laughed. Fee: $2,400.

Bitch Magnet "Star Booty" EP: 

Listen, all I did was help three college bozos remix some sorry class-project recordings, and all of a sudden, Ding! I'm their "producer." Listening to this poor wittle wecord is about the dumbest thing you can do with it, especially if you're short on dinnerware. I did work on an actual record of theirs later, and it wasn't unpleasant, but Orestes "Toast" Delatorre, their drummer and interesting member, has left the band to pursue dog grooming in Alaska or someplace, so who really cares. That B'gnet routinely fires Jon Fine (token hebe) immediately after each recording session is testament to his personality. Fee: $100, I think.

Jesus Lizard "Pure" EP: 

Recorded before the band existed, and therefore neither representative nor any good. They recorded with a drum machine, against all advice, instead of waiting for their excellent actual drummer (a sort of tragic genius) to materialize. A shame, considering how tremendous a band they've become. This record is a blight on a soon-to-be-enormously-significant career. Bands have overcome more shabby beginnings, but not many. The only one of their three records that is not absolutely stellar, but boy is it lunar. Fee: about a buck, I think.

Bastro "Rode Hard And Put Up Wet" LP: 

See previous review. In my opinion, a Zoviet France tattoo is stupid even when compared to genital piercing.

Whitehouse "Thank Your Lucky Stars" 45 and LP: 

William Bennett can effortlessly play almost any Yes song you could be pained to mention on Spanish guitar. I shit you not. Each of the songs Whitehouse recorded was structurally mapped by a famous heavy metal song. So much so, in fact, that all Bennett used as a headphone cue was a cassette recording of whichever Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden or Deep Purple song the track was based on. Tidbit -- three guesses which later-famous synthesizer guy that is on the back of that Prag Vec record you haven't listened to since 1980. Ding! Give that man a banana. Fee: $600.

Membranes "Kiss Ass Godhead" LP: 

I did not produce this record, despite what it says on the jacket. I worked on a couple of songs in Chicago, and helped them mix a few more songs in Leeds, but I no more "produced" it than did I reach into my butt crack and discover it. (Speaking of which, I have a good friend and billiard associate named Jon Spiegel whose magic act involves the disappearance of a volunteer's hankie and the subsequent appearance from between his own magnificent butt cheeks. It's a real PTA pleaser.) Neither Homestead nor Glass, the Membranes' two labels, ever paid me. John Robb is a stand up fellow, but he has lousy business associates, and talks like a Ferriner. Fee: Still nothing in the mailbox, Seymour -- you lying fuck.

Gore "Wrede" LP: 

The title is a Dutch pun combining the words "cruelty" and "peace." Oh you guys, you crack me up. This is a double album, made up of four monolithic instrumentals, the longest of which clocks in at nearly half an hour. I arrived after the band had spent three weeks recording, so there was basically nothing for me to do except oversee overdubs and mix one song. And take sauna baths. And eat like a pig. My favorite victual in Dykenland is a peppered raw beef called "filet American." Must be another Dutch pun. I also learned to love Vlokken, a chocolate shred that is eaten on toast.

I met a writer for the Dutch music magazine Oor (Ear), who always wore a glove on his right hand, which was always balled-up in a fist. I found out why when the conversation turned to fireworks, and he demonstrated (by sticking a thumbtack in it) that his hand was wooden. He had blown it off with fireworks as a boy. He asked me why Americans have such a low opinion of the Dutch. I told him that Americans seldom even thought of the Dutch, except for their elm disease, which we thought highly of. He gave as evidence the expressions "being in Dutch," "Dutch courage," and worst of all, "Dutch treat-- why that's no treat of all!" I told him that they were all puns.

The other engineer on the record was Theo Van Eenbergen, a swell guy who now handles live sound for Henry Rollins, a fate I wouldn't wish on a dog I didn't like. Theo told me about the pot farm he used to live on. Sometimes he and his friends would run naked through the plants and collect the resins from their skin to smoke like hashish. Neat.

Things I now know how to say in Dutch: "Zet je koptelefoon op, mietje, voor ik je tegens jehersens knal." ("Put your headphones on, you little faggot, or I'll come out and crush your brains.") "Vall kapot! Late we eten." ("Fuck it, this is a disaster! Let's eat.") I also learned why you should never ask a Dutch guitar player to hand you his "pick." Fee: $1,200.

Head Of David "Dustbowl" LP: 

The original artwork for this album said "Dustbowel," which I quite liked, even when I found out it was a mistake. My involvement here was limited to remixing a record that was fine before I touched it and got no better for the effort. I also had to endure the presence of Justin Pile, HOD's measly drummer, who spent long hours bemoaning the state of his hemorrhoids, playing with his dreadlocks and eating greasy vegetarian food (the better to fart you with, grandma) -- the turd.Fee: about $500, I think 


  1. Spiderland is a terribly boring album.

    1. It starts well... but yeah, I can't quite see what the fuss is all about.

  2. Thank you for posting these pieces Simon, I've really enjoyed going through them.

    Whilst most of the obits have (understandably) been concentrating on the more moderate, open-minded persona Albini has adopted in recent years, it's great to get a full strength reminder of what a nasty, mean-spirited (yet hugely entertaining / thought provoking) bastard he could be back in the old days.

    I always love his use of the word "trivial" to describe music he doesn't like - *so* withering, like he's framing himself as an adult telling children that their efforts are not sufficiently mature to be considered in the grown up conversation.

    And, I also love the sheer, bare-faced contrarianism of a man with a noted fondness for noisy guitar music being played Sabbath's 'Supernaut' and categorically declaring that it does not rock. How can you argue with a stance like that?

    1. I think it’s the great Rock theorist Joe Carducci who called Supernaut the greatest song the genre has ever produced. Probably some very calculated idol-killing from Albini there.

      Still in his “trying his hardest to be shocking” mode

    2. Yes Carducci in Rock and Pop says "Supernaut" is the most physically powerful rock song ever recorded.

      Carducci and Albini shared the same dim opinion of music that involves programmed rhythm ie. dance music and hip hop. (Ironic given Big Black's use of a drum machine). I seem to remember both of them expressing a opinion along the lines of "well rap is crap, but go-go - that's great, cos it's live band music, it's strenuous, it involves muscles and sweat".

  3. About 30 years ago a friend did me a C90 of Big Black tunes which I still have. It’s pretty great, but other than that I never really felt anything for Albini or his ‘sound’. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds Spiderland boring.

    1. They were different from most of their contemporaries who were using wah wah etc to do this thick, soupy, snowstorm sort of sound - Dinosaur, Husker Du, MBV etc. Big Black were much more postpunk - the guitar was wiry (and Wire-y) cleanly articulated even as it attempts to gouge a wound in your ear drum. He talked about learning everything from Andy Gill and Bruce Gilbert - and you can see that taste continuing with his love of Fugazi etc.

      I remember him being quite dismissive of MBV - it's just a tremolo, what's the big deal?

  4. I didn't really start to get into 'indie' music till late 80s, my mid-late teens, and 'Pod' was probably the first record associated with Albini that I heard, and I played it a lot.

    I don't agree with anyone about 'everything', and it's good that there are some people who don't succumb to the insularity of the media celebrity bubble, such as Albini.
    Anyone who rated The Fall, The Pop Group, Bad Brains, as well as Slint et al certainly merits my attention.
    However, his latterday "recanting" might have partly been to resist his becoming a snarky "contrarian", social media celebrity 'role model' figure, despite himself.
    It's a shame he never updated this advice for the digital media age:

    I'm baffled by views that 'Spiderland' is "boring".. I've loved a.r.kane from when I first heard 'Anitina', b-side of Pump Up The Volume, played to me by someone who shared my enthusiasm for hip hop at the time, but didn't like Alex Ayuli's voice.
    Plus, MBV went on to become a favourite band couple years later, after my following up a passing reference by a classmate and acquaintance at F.E. college.
    Hence, I'm rather puzzled that someone who wrote extravagantly about the "reinvention of the guitar", would (over-)rate the derivative likes of Jesus and the Mary Chain (who were rather like 'Scumbag College' played straight), and Sonic Youth (brilliant band name, if sadly not conceptually inspired, but there were/are probably numerous similar groups of middle-class white folks in every American city), but not Slint.
    In some aspects I would place Slint alongside Throwing Muses, more than some more 'obvious' all-male comparisons.

    Given that Reynolds has done some "recanting" himself, I'm not entirely sure what some of his current views are..
    During the first pandemic lockdown (in Britain), I got the second edition of Blissed Out, the first of which I've recently referenced among comments on the blissblog, and was disappointed with the afterword, where Reynolds is rather dismissive of what would be called among the oeuvre of someone his age, "juvenilia".
    Although some of the late Mark Fisher's writing, not only on music, certainly had much in common with that earlier spirit, including his piece in Loops journal where he was disparaging of Sonic Youth.
    Also during that lockdown period, among things in a YouTube binge, I watched the brilliant documentary about Slint, which was originally available on dvd, in the Spiderland boxed set, which I sadly couldn't afford at the time:

    1. I wouldn't describe Spiderland as boring, but I don't understand why some people seem to think it's revolutionary. And certainly never understood why it's considered a post-rock record. It rocks! It's full of riffs and heavy grooves.

      What it reminds me a bit of is early Saccharine Trust - with some King Crimson added.

    2. I don't know that I know Saccharine Trust, beyond its name, vaguely, but I recall a local guitarist (very good/Birmingham) who was in a few of a late, close friend's bands, recommending Spiderland to another very good guitarist who had also been in the same friend's band, and comparing it to King Crimson.
      I do like what I've heard of them, and seen in YouTube binges, and Robert Fripp is one of my favourite people in music.

      As I said in part of my other original comment, according to at least one historian of 'post-rock', Spiderland was the most influential album in 'post-rock''s development, alongside Spirit of Eden.
      Off the top of my head, the only album I would compare with Spirit of Eden, is the first 'O'rang album, which features former Talk Talk members.
      Spiderland prompts more comparisons, including bands I don't like, such as dull, derivative Mogwai, but David Pajo has the distinction of having been part of three of my favourite bands, Tortoise, Stereolab, as well as Slint.
      A case could be made for brilliant Dif Juz as a precursor at least, but it's often very vague when people make claims about influence, which has some overlap with some plagiarism lawsuit claims.
      Sometimes it's actually just 'feel', such as Blurred Lines and Got to Give It Up, I would say.
      More often it's rather like a parody of wine-tasting, where people 'detect' bits of "this", "that", "the other, etc..." zzz..
      It's the "intentional fallacy", but claims about "influence", are empirical, even biographical claims, and although I might make seemingly casual ascriptions of derivativeness, I don't think I've gone out on a limb.
      This all rather connects with your recent ('re')post about the Avalanches, but still this late in the epoch of recorded music, a lot of so-called musicologists who appear as 'expert witnesses' in plagiarism trials, don't understand how much non-classical music develops by people listening to others' records, albeit frequently in far less imaginative ways, this century, in my view.

    3. I can see the Dif Juz thing with the clean, glassy guitar sound in much of the album. And I always forget that over half of Spiderland is really quiet, spare, subdued songs - almost slowcore.

      Not that I have the last word on the subject, but having had arguably the first word on the subject - codifying the emerging genre - I never would have considered Slint to be part of post-rock. But nor would I have thought of Talk Talk - in fact, I didn't mention, even though I mentioned loads of precursors and anticipators, including AR Kane, but also some of the 1970s Krautrock or Canterbury scene type music. Talk Talk were great but seem more like post-prog soundscapers.

      Mind you, most of what is now considered post-rock is not really what I imagined - things like Godspeed You Black Emperor, it's much too dramatic and epic sounding. I imagined postrock would be about rock instruments (guitar primarily) interfacing with technology - sampling, sequencing, 'hard disk editing' or what they now call DAWs etc etc. So Seefeel would be the archetypal trajectory - from a song-and-vocal oriented shoegazey outfit to one which is bound up with technology and the voice is just a texture.

    4. You mentioned the Art of Noise in a comment on that aforementioned Avalanches post, and arguably they were already 'post-rock', especially with the link of Trevor Horn producing Yes ('Owner of a Lonely Heart'), plus, as I recall, in an introductory note, or postscript, in Bring The Noise, you referenced Paul Morley as at least one critic who'd predated your coining of 'post-rock'.
      Also, inasmuch some post-rock groups have been influenced by hip hop, Art of Noise preceded them, and also influenced hip hop themselves.
      Colourbox, another favourite of mine, might be another earlier instance, and with all due, genuine respect to Don Letts, Big Audio Dynamite were more like a less interesting, rockier variant of Colourbox, with sadly more prime time success.
      Yet another 4ad-associated predecessor could be Michael Brook, with his "infinite guitar", and certainly Cocteaux, another favourite.

      Possibly, GYBE, Rachel's etc., and Talk Talk, and various others, are more like a continuation of prog, insofar as being influenced by jazz/free improv, and or 'classical' and later forms of 'compositional' music.
      One of my favourite albums this century, is The Sand and the Stars, the fourth album by Movietone, and I recall trying to describe it to a musician friend, who was also a close friend and bandmate of my aforementioned late friend, and I said something like, "chamber jazz campfire indie folk...."!

      To return to the question of derivativeness, in some instances as with many emergent (and also, emergentist, as in contrast to reductionist) musical 'scenes' or 'movements', other bands appear that aren't necessarily jumping on the bandwagon, but were looking in a similar direction, without being sure there was an audience for that path.
      Notwithstanding, in varying degrees, all cultural producers, even derivative ones, create their own audiences.

      Bands such as Foals and Alt-J are 'post-rock/pop', and with the latter winning the Mercury Prize, one of the most pointless of pointless awards in my view, they remind me of a post-rock Gomez, with a not too dissimilar-sounding singer.

      I'd be interested in any thoughts, should you have them, on my other, initial comment, starting "Erratum/Addendum", and on the 'links'/addresses in my first, initial comment 🔝 especially the Baffler one, not to mention, my recent comments on posts...

    5. Here's Paul, and you: I did listen to this series at the time, and recorded some episodes (on cassette), but not that one!
      Here, too:
      Of course, albeit probably without Morley, the other original members of the Art of Noise did make a lot of records together, including The Lexicon of Love, and possibly, Duck Rock.
      I've long had a fondness for Morley, from when he appeared on the Late Show, and programmes he made for Channel 4.
      I've had his memoir Nothing for quite some time, and read quite far into it, some years ago, but got diverted and have yet to return to it properly, yet.
      I must also read his co-written Grace Jones autobiography.
      During one of my lockdown binges on YouTube, I watched a fascinating clip of Morrissey and George Michael together on some review show, where not unusually Michael was expressing his fondness for Joy Division, but his disliking for Morley's writing: There are other longer postings of this programme.
      I am a fan of pretty much all present in that clip.

  5. Erratum/Addendum: not blissblog.

    Kristin Hersh's 'Invisible Jukebox' in The Wire recently was well worth reading.

    In a book I was looking at in a bookshop several years ago, I think it was a history of 'post-rock', it claimed that the two most influential albums on 'post-rock''s development were Spirit of Eden, and Spiderland, if memory serves.
    They're certainly among my favourite albums, but I would hesitate to judge them by who they might have inspired.

    I was first aware of hearing Slint, when I saw the Larry Clark film 'Kids', which has Good Morning Captain on its soundtrack, which I think was overseen by Lou Barlow.
    I didn't especially dislike the film, but the soundtrack was the best part of it, as I recall, nonetheless.
    I saw it at a local, maybe regional premiere, at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham, which was part of a season associated with the Angle Gallery, with which I was a voluntary coordinator, about whether there was a 'Lost Generation' of young people.
    Sadly the Angle closed earlier in this century, and as has been in the news, the Electric, the oldest cinema in England or Britain, might now follow.