Where to start with the enigmatic music known as shoegaze
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Shoegaze
Why it’s daunting: By its nature, shoegaze is a hard thing to penetrate. Suffused with swirling, disorienting, blearily processed guitar, the style coalesced out of a cloud of influences in 1988, when My Bloody Valentine released its game-changing album Isn’t Anything. Imperviously heavy and sweetly melodic, it quickly inspired a glut of soundalikes—although there were other random antecedents, most notably Cocteau Twins and The Jesus And Mary Chain. Drawing from atmospheric post-punk and droning psychedelia, shoegaze received an extra boost of inspiration from the U.S. underground scene, most notably big-guitar groups like Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. Shoegaze rose in a parallel arc to the similarly trippy Madchester sound, but where Madchester was outgoing, shoegaze was introverted—hence its name, originally meant as a derogatory term that referred to the scene’s notoriously shy stage presences. After reaching its apotheosis with My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece, Loveless, shoegaze petered out quickly, although numerous bands have tried to keep the dense, senses-pummeling sound alive since then, with varying degrees of success.
Possible gateway: Ride, Going Blank Again
Why? Loveless may be shoegaze’s Platonic ideal, but it can also be overwhelming to inner ears that aren’t accustomed to that level of sonic vertigo. Ride’s second album, 1992’s Going Blank Again, hits the sweet spot at the center of pop accessibility, conventional songwriting, and galaxy-sized swathes of noise. In a way, it almost picks up where The Cure’s Disintegration—a large influence on shoegaze—leaves off, steeping pristine jangle in deep pools of echo and melancholy. The disc’s eight-minute opener, “Leave Them All Behind,” is a practically a gateway to shoegaze unto itself; from it’s tremolo-laden intro to its pterodactyl-cry guitar, the song showcases everything otherworldly and breathtaking about shoegaze. At the same time, the album as a whole hints at the broader palette of textures and influences that Ride was soon to incorporate.
Next steps: The gold standard of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is overshadowed by its own towering reputation. Set aside the story of its long, legendary creation and numerous innovations, and what’s left is a batch of dreamy, beautiful pop songs that sometimes get lost in all the hyperbole. It’s true that mastermind Kevin Shields spent years painstakingly perfecting the album in the studio, and that the sampling and recording techniques he used changed guitar rock (or certain subsets of it) forever. But Loveless, gorgeous as it is, stands as more of a frozen moment than the beginning of an epoch.
Although Lush wound up turning into a pub-friendly Britpop band—albeit a good one—by the mid-’90s, the band’s 1990 full-length, Gala (comprising three previous EPs), is an elfin, alien wonder. Like two shimmering, helium-huffing Siouxsies, singer-guitarists Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson weave airy harmonies and spangled dreamscapes. The band owed a lot to its largest inspiration, Cocteau Twins; at the same time, Lush managed to root that ethereality in less operatic, more approachable ground.
Swervedriver was always the odd band out when it came to the shoegaze top tier. Led by dreadlocked rocker Adam Franklin, the band plied a much more forceful form of reverberating, atmospheric indie rock. Raise is the group’s powerful yet uneven debut from 1991, but 1993’s Mezcal Head is where Franklin and crew really upped the ante. Drawing as much from My Bloody Valentine as it does Hüsker Dü (particularly Grant Hart’s smokier work), Mezcal Head is a unique and dizzying entry in the shoegaze canon.
Some shoegaze bands utilized distortion, effects pedals, and the studio itself as compositional instruments. Slowdive, however, always seemed like more of a folk-rock band at heart, one that just so happened to stumble upon the genre’s processed, trippy sound. Not that there’s anything unsure about Souvlaki, the band’s sophomore album from 1993. Oozing whispery, co-ed vocals and simple, unadorned songcraft, the disc has aged incredibly well—in spite of the fact that Slowdive finally scratched its experimental itch with 1995’s Pygmalion.
The most blatantly commercial shoegaze band, Chapterhouse feels pretty lightweight when stacked against most of its murkier, moodier contemporaries. But the band’s 1991 debut full-length, Whirlpool, has wound up being one of the era’s most beloved releases. And for good reason. As fluffy and sugary as cotton candy, the disc’s happy-sad pop rested on some serious shoegaze chops—not to mention an affinity for Madchester acts like The Stone Roses. In particular, the heavenly single “Pearl” stands as one of the genre’s indelible classics. The angelic backing vocals from Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell don’t hurt.
Where not to start: Shoegaze was a British phenomenon, but plenty of American bands hopped on the bandwagon. Early on, it was scrappy outfits like the Lilys (and many other bands on the Slumberland label) and Swirlies; later, everyone from Autolux to Constants picked up on the shoegaze vibe. As good as these latter-day bands are, it’s hard to hear them as being anything other than revivalists; as such, they’re not the best entry point. Neither are the profusion of contemporary metalgaze bands like Jesu, Rosetta, and Deafheaven. Although they’ve done as much to evolve the genre as anyone, they don’t fully represent the original scope and spirit of shoegaze.