Somewhere in the ether, below the comets and beyond the wall of sleep, is a sunsplash of sound known as Shoegaze.
Shoegaze gets the name from the performers’ style when playing live. They’d hunch over their instruments in the shadows and stare at the floor as they played.
It is a unique genre with two close cousins; space rock, and dream pop. Shoegaze, an English phenomenon of the late 80’s-early 90’s, was a sonic phenomenon. It was a very loud music, emphasising heavily distorted repetitive riffs, or long drones. It was constantly awash in feedback, almost at all times, layered, filtered, flowing, avalanches of feedback. Melodies and vocals were given equal distortion, and buried deep in the mix until it became impossible sometimes to distinguish instrument from voice.
Despite the immense amounts of white noise and murk, these records still managed to be quite tuneful at times, and often had an immensely sad vibe to them. The performers themselves were a notoriously shy bunch, by rock standards, and were seldom very good interviews.
My Bloody Valentine gets credit for inventing the style; their 1991 Loveless album is the masterpiece of this genre. Their influence was deep and profound; informing legions of indie bands. Among their contemporaries and early followers were Catherine Wheel, whose “Black Metallic” is perhaps the genre’s most well known and cherished tune, Ride, who had a more psychedelic sound, and the Verve, who later evolved into a space rock band and scored some hits.
Shoegaze rocks less than space rock, and it is rougher sounding than dream pop. There is crossover among all three genres; Lush and the Boo Radleys could fit into shoegaze or dream pop; The Verve and Chapterhouse could be called shoegaze or space rock. By the mid-90’s, it was gone; most groups had either broken up, or evolved out of the genre.
But tonight we’re gonna bathe in feedback and get introspective. Tonight is Shoegaze night.
The following titles were randomly selected by Media Center from all titles in my library with “shoegaze” genre tags, a pool of 128. The first ten randomly selected are profiled Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Ride: Kaleidoscope ****
Ride had a little more pop songcraft than most of the shoegazers; Kaleidoscope is a catchy psychedelic pop number. Soundling like a cross between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Byrds, with wall-of-sound feedback and tuneful bass, this is more upbeat than the remainder of this excellent album. The album from which this is taken is often cited as shogaze’s second best album.
2. The Verve: Sun, The Sea *****
A tour de force from the Verve, from the small northern English town of Wigan, this is an atmospheric, rocking hazefest with metal guitar riffs from Nick McCabe, urgent bass, quiet passages and explosions of color. The druggy wail of Richard Ashcroft slips in and out of the murk, and of all things, a jazzy saxophone enters the jam. The Verve were among the very best English bands of the 1990’s, during their three album career. Anyone who likes Oasis ought to tune in to what the real stuff sounds like. This is a good starting point.
3. Catherine Wheel: Texture ****
This opens with a thunderous repeating guitar riff that works up a real lather before launching into the vocals, which are light, and mixed low. This song showcases the band well, drifting from quiet space to pounding riffs and back again, the ambient feedback harnassed in the service of forward momentum. This was the leadoff track from Catherine Wheels’ debut album.
4. Kitchens of Distinction: Smiling ***
5. The Boo Radleys: It’s Lulu ****
The Boo Radleys started as shoegazers, but by the time of this release, the shoegaze scene was in decline and the band had taken on a more pop aesthetic. The result was perhaps their most accessable music of their career. This rolls along with an almost power-pop punch to it, with bright vocals, tuneful harmonies, and an increasing rush of feedback accompanying the melody until it explodes at the end. It’s an efficient 3:04, and is marred only by a semi cheesy synthesized horn chart.
6. Swervedriver: She’s Beside Herself *****
“She’s Besider Herself” is a B-side, but don’t let that fool you. It is a spectacular track, with busy, ringing guitars, strong vocals, plenty of feedwash, and a slow tempo that quickens as the song progresses. Swervedrive put out three excellent EP’s in a row prior to their debut, of which this is the second. All are worth hunting down, nearly all the tracks worth hearing.
7. Lush: Ladykillers **
Lush’s reputation rests mainly on their very first EP, five years before this one was released. By this point, they had lost much of their shoegaze sound, and “Ladykillers” is an uptempo poppy song, with idiosyncratic vocals and cutesy flourishes. Fairly fruity sounding; it almost plays like a novelty record. Can’t say I especially like it, though.
8. Slowdive: Machine Gun ****
This has an almost Cocteau-Twins feel to it, but like one of their dark, brooding ones. Brian Eno helped out with keyboard treatments on two songs from this album, and his aura hangs over it. While he didn’t produce this song, it sounds a lot like Eno production. The playing is focused; the band doesn’t get carried away with the feedback and atmospherics. Very lovely, very melancholy texture.
9. My Bloody Valentine: When You Sleep ****
From the album hailed as the genre masterpiece, and with good reason. This is the template from which all that followed borrowed from. This is one of the brighter sounding tunes to emerge from the warpy din. Vocals emerge from behind guitars, and meander into the background again. The playing is incessant and riffy. Not the best from the album, but a good one.
10. Chapterhouse: Mesmerize ****
This opens with a piano tinkle, a big synthesized wah-wah, and a druns ‘n’ bass bottom. This is the most overtly trip-hop/electronica flavored song on the list; the others had more organic sonics, for the most part. However, the electronica flourishes here don’t detract from the song, even if it doesn’t quite make this a pure example of the genre. Dreamy, drifty vocals, clear, chiming lead guitar and a languid, dream-pop ambience with giant guitar slashes near the end. A very ambitious arrangemet works well. Chapterhouse can also be considered a space-rock band.
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