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Monday, October 17, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Shoegaze
Shoegaze, for a very brief moment in time, was England's biggest indie rock movement, lasting from about 1988 through 1994; it was heavily promoted in the U.K. music press as an active "scene" from about 1989 to 1991 before enthusiasm began to wane. The term itself conveys both the performers' style of playing and their overall attitude. "Shoegaze" refers to the musicians' tendency to remain stationary while playing, staring down at the floor. Shoegaze bands were notoriously crowd-adverse and poor interview subjects; in some cases it may have been schtick, but in other cases the musicians really weren't very communicative, either as artistic statement or as a side effect of drug consumption.
What was noteworthy about shoegaze was not simply the stance of the musicians, however. It was also a movement primarily concerned with sound, pure washes of sound. The music was highly amplified; it relied on drone, distortion, and layers of feedback, often resulting in a multitextured wall of noise that made each individual instrument nearly impossible to hear in isolation, turning melody into grandiose, textured sound sculptures. Female vocals or male/female vocals far outnumbered male vocals. Noteworthy was the fact that a sizable number of the women in shoegaze played their own instruments as well, including the traditionally macho instruments: guitar, bass, and drums.
The flagship band of the genre was My Bloody Valentine, who took the noise experiments of Jesus and Mary Chain and reinvented them; dream-pop architects Cocteau Twins also helped lay the essential foundation. Shoegaze is cousin to noise-pop, space-rock, and dream pop, with many of the performers qualifying for more than one designation.
The performers' reticence in communicating with the audience is one of the things that prevented Shoegaze from catching on in America, where audiences generally didn't get the music, or missed it entirely. The movement began to dim as early as 1991, when grunge and 90's Britpop crowded out the original shoegaze bands. Some managed to eke out a few more hits into the mid-90's, but by 1995, nearly all the shoegaze bands had folded, or transformed their music into something else.
An anti-shoegaze backlash inevitably welled up around 1991 around the time My Bloody Valentine released Loveless and Ride, Swervedriver, Lush, and Pale Saints were in full swing and new bands were forming weekly; the scene which had been promoted by the music press at its heyday was derided by the same music press as as narcissistic, lazy, trivial, stle-oriented, and ultimately meaningless. As usual though, the music press overlooked the musical value of this technology-based neo-neo primitivism artpop; a key position in sonic history is claimed by shoegaze, which in retrospect was a shimmering sonic boom that gave birth to many of the sonic conventions of alternative rock of the 90's.
In retrospect the 'movement' was little more than a fad, but it was an important one; although the initial wave of shoegaze bands was short-lived, their influence continues to be felt in bands of the 00's on both sides of the Atlantic, in sonic washes to swirls of feedback to dreamlike hazes to filtered and distorted vocals. The best shoegaze remains pretty good listening today; the absolute cream of shoegaze is among the essential music of the turn of the 90's.
Some important/influential shoegaze artists/songs include:
1. My Bloody Valentine: Feed Me With Your Kiss
My Bloody Valentine didn't truly arrive until their 1988 album Isn't Anything, but it and its 1991 followup, Loveless, remain the standardbearers for shoegaze, as well as key albums in the noise-pop, dream-pop, and space-rock genres. "Feed Me With Your Kiss", while neither as delicate nor as crafted as the material on Loveless, stands as a good example of the essential shoegaze sound. The male/female vocals are literally buried under layers of massively distorted guitars and crashing percussion; it is set apart by a rapid tempo and a rollicking bass that periodically rises to the surface before slipping back into the murk. Isn't Anything earned the band earned the band raves in England, and gained them attention in the U.S., where Sire/Warner Brothers signed them. After their Loveless, released nearly three years later, the band ceased releasing records; years later, the number of indie bands that have used their two albums as templates are countless.
2. Catherine Wheel: Black Metallic
One of the few long-lived bands on this list, Catherine Wheel was initially considered a major shoegaze band, a title the band hated. They subsequently altered their sound considerably over the years, transforming into an arty metal band, but their 1992 debut, Ferment, is still largely shoegaze in sound and execution. "Black Metallic" is the standout; a seven minute epic centered around Rob Dickinson's wistful vocal and stunning, layered, feedback drenched guitars that build from quietitude to a gigantic orgy of noise that retains a melancholy beauty throughout. In some respects, "Black Metallic" could be considered the greatest of all shoegaze songs. Their 1993 album, Chrome, is in a similar vein, and produced the radio hit "Crank", but as the decade progressed, the band cleaned up its sound, pushed the vocals upfront, and generally toughened itself up. Their most recent album was Wishville, in 2000, which is decidedly not shoegaze, but a good listen nontheless.
3. Verve: Blue
Verve, no "The" in the early days, was another band that was originally lumped in with shoegaze before developing its own unique sound, that ultimately was a cross between Britpop and space rock. Their 1993 debut, A Storm In Heaven, still relied on the dense guitar textures that characterized their peers. "Blue" has a chugging rhythm embedded in a haze of white noise, while Richard Ashcroft's vocal bubbles under the surface; Nick McCabe's guitar lends color and propulsion. Both Ashcroft and McCabe were too restless to rely on murk for long, however, and their follow-up album A Northern Soul, saw them cleaning up their sound considerably; Urban Hymns in 1997 introduced sampling to their palette with hit results, but the band imploded in 1998 following a tour. While the band's later work is probably their most enduring, A Storm In Heaven is one of the best psychedelic albums of the 1990's, and remains a shoegaze classic.
4. Pale Saints: Sight of You
Pale Saints were originally singed to the London-based 4AD label, home to the Cocteau Twins, and caretakers of the dream pop sound. "Sight of You" was originally included on the three-song EP Barging Into the Presence of God, the band's 1989 debut. The song was singled out for praise by the music press, and covered by Ride on the BBC; it features intricately psychedelic lead guitar that bends and morphs in a stew of reverb and tremelo, while bassist Ian Masters waxes melancholy on vocals. Their moment in the sun was fairly short-lived; by 1993, Masters left the band, which survived for a single album without him before breaking up in 1994. The Comforts of Madness, their first full-length from 1990 and which also contains "Sight of You" is by far their most realized offering.
5. Slowdive: Alison
Formed in Reading in 1989, Slowdive were still in their teens when they came together. Originally, their sound was a mix of My Bloody Valentine and the Byrds (an influence that also appears in Ride's music), but Slowdive also evolved from their first release into something else entirely. "Alison" leads off their 1993 sophomore album, Souvlaki, which toned down some of the shoegaze excess of their debut in favor of better formed songs and better crafter structure. The result as an ethereal sound with gossamer vocals hovering over an instrumentation that uses feedback and distortion more in the washes than as an underlying bed of noise, although the overall sound is textbook shoegaze. Slowdive is set apart by the generally quiet dimensions of their albums in comparision to the more unabashed noisemaking from My Bloody Valentine; Slowdive also displayed little punk influence. The band had only three albums in them, the last, Pygmalion, appeared in 1995, and saw them incorporating some electronic elements.
6. Ride: Kaleidoscope
Ride's 1990 debut, Nowhere, is often referred to as the second-best shoegaze album after My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. It is a remarkable album; while it applies all of the shoegaze techniques of buried vocals, textured beds of discordant guitars, and percussive drums, it also owes some debt to the 60's, particularly to The Byrds. "Kaliedoscope" is what the Byrds would've sounded like if they had been a shoegaze band; underneath the noise is a Byrds-ey chime to the guitars that make the album one of the better latter-day psychedelic albums. The band released four more albums through 1996, but as a shoegaze backlash picked up steam, they found critical response to be tepid at best, and sales tapered off.
7. Swervedriver: Son of Mustang Ford
Swervedrive formed when shoegaze was in full swing, which meant that they weren't so much architects of the sound as a unit that brought more vocabulary to it. Swervedriver built their legend via a series of well regarded EP's before their debut album, Raise, was released in 1991. The band fused the shoegaze aesthetic with more traditional rock forms; pop structure was given more attention, Swervedriver also displayed an obsession with cars and driving, another perennial rock topic. "Son of Mustang Ford", from Raise, is a crunchy, uptempo hard-rock number with a woozy lead guitar that is given the textures of shoegaze, particularly in percussion and the underlying bed of feedback. As one of the more aggressive bands among a generally docile group, their songs generally have a forward-leaning energy that would appeal to American listeners. The band remained active through 1998, releasing four albums, before disbanding.
8. Lush: Hypocrite
Originally a quintet of guitarist/singer Miki Berenyi, guitarist/singer Emma Anderson, drummer Chris Acland, bassist Steve Rippon, and guitarist Meriel Barham, the band was reduced to a four-piece when Barham left to form Pale Saints prior to Lush's debut album Spooky, in 1992. "Hypocrite" is from their most realized effort, Split, from 1994. In some respects, it points to the directions shoegaze ultimately led; a little too straightforward and full of momentum to qualify as shoegaze itself, it nontheless retains the lessons learned in the form of a sheet of feedback accompanying the entire song, sung in duet by Berenyi and Anderson. They sound like a pop version of My Bloody Valentine to an extent an Split, which was transitionary; by the time of their third LP, Lovelife, in 1996, they had transformed into a fairly straight-ahead Britpop group. They seemed on the verge of capitalizing on this transformation when drummer Aclund commited suicide, leading to the group's breakup.
9. Loop: Arc-Lite
Loop, among the original shoegazers, approached the form not so much as a post-punk indie band, like My Bloody Valentine, or closet 60's fans, like Ride, nor popstars in disguise, like Lush, but as a spooky, progressive, art-rock band, influenced by Can and Hawkwind, with almost ham-fisted primitivism cutting the chilliness and adding sparks. This put them on the cusp of space rock, along with frequent tourmates Chapterhouse and Spacemen 3. Their second album, Fade Out, appeared almost in tandem with My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything, making Loop as responsible for shoegaze as the masters themselves. "Arc-Lite" followed as a single (a remix is now included as a bonus track on the 1990 album A Gilded Eternity). Perhaps their best known song, its hook is its drone, which is hypnotic and captivating, and denser than it appears on the surface, in much the same way Can's drones were. A Stooges/Sonic Youth-like instrumental approach helps keep the noise buzz dominant. The band split into essentially two bands in the early 90's; Hair and Skin Trading Company, and Main.
10. Chapterhouse: Mesmerize
Emerging from the same space rock scene as Spacemen 3 and Loop, Chapterhouse's early recordings show their transition from a somewhat abrasive space sound to a more intricate and delicate shoegaze ethic. The band formed in 1987 in Reading, and soon were championed by Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, who recorded some early vocals with them. They gained notice with a series of early singles, with "Pearl" featuring Rachel Goswell of Slowdive being their real breakthrough. Whirlpool, their debut, appeared in 1991 just as the shoegaze movement was peaking and a backlash was kicking up. As such, it was greeted with mixed reviews that dampened sales even though the album itself is a fine if somewhat muted affair that recalls the Cocteau Twins in places. Chapterhouse's highpoint was "Mesmorize", from the EP Mesmerize, released a few months after Whirlpool. It's a gorgeous slow wistful piece built on a synth bassline and a chiming, circular guitar. The vocals are reminiscent of Rain Parade. With shoegaze in decline, Chapterhouse, like many of the other shoegaze bands began to pursue a direction, adding dance elements. It didn't work out, and the band folded after one more album, Blood Music, in 1993.
11. The Boo Radleys: I Hang Suspended
The Boo Radleys formed in 1988 and languished among the second-tier of shoegaze for their first few years of existence. The band's debut Ichobod & I, appeared in 1990 on a small indie label. The moved to Rough Trade, which folded in 1991, before landing at Creation records, which was top-heavy with shoegaze bands at the time. Their real breakthrough, and only album to notch many sales in the U.S. was Giant Steps, from 1993. Giant Steps, also the name of a John Coltrane album, saw the band beginning to transition out of of shoegaze, putting the noise in the service of the songs, rather than making songs out of the noise. It's also arguably their best album. "I Hang Suspended" opens with muted, murky, ghostly synth and vocals that muter on for 50 seconds before a rude guitar clarion kicks off a propulsive rocker full of distortion and crunch. It's textures are still from the shoegaze handbook, but the songwriting and execution points to a way out of the kaleidoscope. Their 1995 album, Wake Up! is their generally acknowledged classic, but by then they were two steps removed from shoegaze, treading in a more standard Britpop territory. Two more albums followed after that; the Boo Radleys disbanded in 1998.
12. Curve: Coast is Clear
Curve, formed in 1991 by guitarist Dean Garcia and vocalist Toni Halliday, specialized in gothic guitar-drenched dance tracks that bear a resemblance to Australian dream pop group Single Gun Theory. "Coast Is Clear" is bass heavy and has a beat, which fairly disqualifies it from true shoegaze. However, all of the other elements are in place: huge sheets of processed, distorted guitar, Halliday's voice buried under a sheen of noise, reverb and echo galore, and a thick wall of sound. What Curve really represents is the missing link between shoegaze and electronica, a fence upon which the duo sat. The pair were introduced via Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, with whom Garcia had recorded. This raised the suspicions of the music press, who questioned their 'indie' status. Curve has had the last laugh though, releasing albums through 2004, making them the longest-lived act on this list. Their later work is more in a electronica/dream pop vein, but the noise pop lessons learned during the shoegaze era still inform their music.
13. Lilys: Elizabeth Color Wheel
While some argue that shoegaze was a specific scene in a specific place at a specific time, others will argue that while that may be true, shoegaze also was enough of a legitimate style as to have practioners far removed from the geographical scene. Lilys are case in point. Lilys are a somewhat mysterious band, which is really the vehicle of Kurt Heasley of Philadelphia, a restless drifter of a musician who essentially roamed the American East Coast following his muse. The first single from Lilys was "February 14" a tacit tip of the hat to My Bloody Valentine; it was followed by In the Presence of Nothing in 1993, a shoegaze album in everything except its "Made in USA" label. In 1995 Lilys returned with the mesmerizing Eccsame The Photon Band which took the unusual direction of sripping shoegaze bare of all its fuzz and haze, coming up with a minimalist drone that seems a logical extension despite its unlikeliness. Lilys released Precollection in 2003.
14. Th' Faith Healers: Heart Frog
From Hampstead, England, Th' Faith Healers (that 'e' was stolen by Thee Hypnotics, they claim) are another band that emerged during the shoegaze era, and displayed the same swirling noisy distorted walls of sound, but never quite fit into the whole shoegaze label. One big difference was a clear debt to Can and other kraut-rock (they did a cover of Can's "Mother Sky"). They only recorded two albums, the better being their second, from 1994, Imaginary Friend, which includes "Heart Frog" As a late-entry to the genre, it also displays a transition into new frontiers; "Heart Frog" starts out as a very minimalist bass driven number with a couple of crackling guitar riffs here and there, before reaching a noise explosion in the middle; it returns to a quiet drone and explodes all over again at the end. Roxanne Stephen's vocal is fuzzed and recalls Kim Deal to a degree (Th' Faith Healers opened for the Breeders in 1994) Th' Faith Healers were a band full of promise, but they split in 1994; guitarist/vocalist Tom Cullinan then formed Quickspace.
15. The Swirlies: Tall Ships
One other American band came close to counting as shoegaze besides Lilys; Boston's Swirlies. The band's first two releases, Swirlies Number One and What to Do About Them, came closest with their swirling (hence the name) guitars and dense forests of sound. "Tall Ships" leads off the latter, released in 1992, and opens with a firestorm of feedback and aggressive noise, while the bass and drums are at utter odds with each other in My Bloody Valentine tradition. Guitarist/singer Damon Tuntunjian and singer/guitarist Seana Carmody's vocals are almost inaudible under the din of their own guitars. Still, the unlikely, almost accidental beats have their own hypnotic allure, and the utter discord of some of Tuntunjian's guitar slashes are arresting. Their best album was Blonder Tongue Audio Baton from 1993; lineup changes have plagued them ever since, but they're still at it, touring with the Lilys a couple of years ago.
16. Moose: Jack
Moose, like Ride, broadened their shoegaze pallette with some jangle, recalling the Byrds and R.E.M., which set their sound apart from the punkier and more metallic shoegaze bands. Indeed, only their three 1991 EP's, Jack, Cool Breeze, and Reprise, could really be considered shoegaze; by the release of their debut album, ...XYZ, in 1992, they had already begun evolving from the noise for the sake of noise ethic and into the realm of acoustic based dream pop, with noise textures added as color. They've since released three more, the most recent in 2000. Even in their homeland, Moose remained a fairly overlooked group (although Russell Yates had once been in Stereolab, and Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser guested on an album. They're actually quite good; High Ball Me!, from 2000, is perhaps their best.
17. Kitchens of Distinction: 4 Men
Kitchens of Distinction are really a little too old for this list; the trio formed in 1986. However, My Bloody Valentine dates back farther, and their noise aesthetic developed roughly in tandem, blossoming at about the same time. Their debut album, Love Is Hell, from 1989, gained some acclaim, but their 1991 sophomore disc Strange Free World and their 1992 album The Death of Cool are their real classics. "4 Men" is from The Death of Cool, and rides an airy-sounding sheet of distortion through a fairly conventionally constructed pop tune, but filled with echoed dense wall of sound and a slightly askew wobble to the beat that keeps it within spitting distance of shoegaze. Their audience was limited by singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald's candid homosexuality at a time and place where it wasn't considered cool, which may have prevented them from reaching the audience they might have. When their next album, Cowboys and Aliens flopped in 1994, they were dropped by their label. Fitzgerald subsequently surfaced in a band called Fruit.
18. Nightblooms: Panicle
Nightblooms are a Dutch band that released two albums on Seed in 1992 and 1993. Clearly inspired by the shoegaze explosion of 1989-1991, their albums display all the hallmarks, from swirling shimmering guitars to hazy female vocals. They never developed much more than a miniscule cult in England, anchored by Dutch ex-pats. Their albums are fairly difficult to find in the U.S. "Panicle" is from the 1992 debut, Nightblooms, the more widely circulated of the two. Its vocals are its most winning characteristic, foggy and detached as the guitars explore the distance between space and noise.
19. Spiritualized: Shine A Light
When seminal space rock and shoegaze-cousins Spacemen 3 disbanded in 1991, singer/guitarist Jason Pierce and singer/guitarist/organist Sonic Boom parted ways and set up their own bands, both perfectly illustrating the difference in their space rock vision. Sonic Boom went for the abrasive edge with Spectrum, and with Experimental Audio Research, which also included My Bloody Valentine guitar mastermind Kevin Shields, while Pierce pursued a gentler, more instrumentally varied wall-of-sound. In 1991 Spiritualized toured with Jesus and Mary Chain (My Bloody Valentine's muse) and Curve; their debut album, Lazer Guided Melodies is a blissed out drone and groove collection of songs that veer from gentle and melodic to noisy and atonal and vice versa. "Shine A Light" is a gorgeous example of an absolutle heavenly melody played on a spare bass and drums with Pierce's guitar lending texture. By the end of the track the entire melody has been swallowed by a vortex of white noise, an orgy of shoegazing rapture. Spiritualized's greatest album is the 1998 epic Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which is a masterpiece of space rock, far removed from shoegaze. There have been some jarring lineup changes in the years since, but Spiritualized delivered a good album Amazing Grace, as recently as 2003.
20. Majesty Crush: "No. 1 Fan"
Included as a curiosity are one more band from America, Majesty Crush. Formed in Detroit, their first album was Love 15, released in 1993. Devotees of shoegaze, it permeates their sound; being from Detroit, they add a little grit into the mix, and humor into the lyrics. "No. 1 Fan" is the closest thing they had to a hit (it didn't chart), and will one day be looked upon as one of the great lost 1990's nuggets. The familiar clouds of guitar effects is punctuated by a sweaty and catchy rhythm section, giving shoegaze almost a hint of soul, the very thing it is most often accused of lacking. A second album followed in 1994, but the band was utterly neglected by Warner Brothers, owner of their label Dali, and were uncerimoniously dropped into obscurity.
Sunday Morning Playlist usually appears weekly.
Listen to Catherine Wheel: Black Metallic (1992)