Sound of Confusion How Shoegaze Defied Critics and Influenced A Generation

Sound of Confusion How Shoegaze Defied Critics and Influenced A Generation
They call it the "holocaust section” and it can last upwards of 25 minutes. For almost 20 years — give or take a 13-year hiatus — it’s been anticipated and feared at every My Bloody Valentine show, including a string of reunion gigs for the recently resurrected band, to the excitement of deafened ears and nauseated stomachs. Author Mike McGonigal, who wrote about the band’s Loveless album for the 33 1/3 book series, described it as "what it must be like to stick my head inside a jet engine.” After a reunion show in June, Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) blogged that "it was the single loudest thing I have ever experienced. The sound moved my face. My balls retracted. It was like standing in front of the mouth of hell.”

This powerful sonic blast is the middle segment of "You Made Me Realise,” My Bloody Valentine’s 20-year-old, four-minute single. Described to McGonigal by MBV singer, guitarist and producer Kevin Shields as "such a huge noise with so much texture to it, it allowed people to imagine anything,” with this one song MBV started a sonic revolution that has lasted two decades. Shields and MBV are revered for their studio trickery and musical innovation, all the more so because their classic 1991 swansong, Loveless, will go down in history as one of the greatest albums ever made. But MBV’s longest-lasting achievement was popularising a short-lived period of music built on introspective, often morose songs masked with transmutation between noisy and serene soundscapes.

The press mostly called it "shoegazing,” a term met with hesitation by those in the scene and overwhelming praise from critics with something new to write about. There were brief flirtations with chart success by innovators My Bloody Valentine and pin-ups Ride, but the splash of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 brought the advent of grunge. Unlike shoegazing — a scene that never had a true figurehead, arguably due to MBV’s failure to complete a long sought-after Loveless follow-up — grunge swept the world. The more mainstream Britpop scene moved in on the ’gazers territory in 1993 (even converting a few, like Ride and Lush, who swapped distortion pedals for crisp jangle and straight-up hooks) to become a global phenomenon. From there, it was only a matter of time before the introverted kids that eschewed an image for the sake of the music would either fold or reinvent their sound.

But a funny thing happened after those pioneering bands disassembled their pedal boards. Their legacy continued — not so much in the homeland of its birth, but worldwide, particularly in North America. Labels like Darla, Clairecords and Morr released new records that captured the era’s spirit while evolving the sound of swirling guitars. As Shields said, the moment in "You Made Me Realise” that allowed people to imagine anything started being heard in unimagined scenes: the extended jams of post-rock, the chest-caving low end of drone and doom metal, the tranquil fringes of electronica and the more obvious realms of pop and rock.

Like any genre, "shoegazing” has many parents; most date the first traces back to the drugged-out noise and motionless performances of the Velvet Underground. More obviously, the groundwork was laid in early ’80s Britain by the Cure albums Faith and Pornography, by the swirling buzz-saw noise and anti-social behaviour of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the ethereal textures of Cocteau Twins and the hypnotic drones of Spacemen 3. Noisier sounds emanating from the U.S. — Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth — added another element.

"This is always a tricky question,” according to Clairecords founder Dan Sostrom. "There’s always a constant evolution of sound and it’s hard to pinpoint one specific instance. A semi-recent discovery for me is Rhys Chatham. He was making incredible guitar compositions in the ’70s that — to me — are a great precursor to the shoegaze movement. Nobody ever seems to name-check him though.”

As a scene, shoegazing coalesced in London around the release of MBV’s 1988 debut Isn’t Anything, inspiring dozens of bands to build effects-laden guitar sounds, playing loud, eddying melodies. The press caught on quickly, and independent labels like Creation and 4AD did too. Most bands were British: Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Moose, Pale Saints, Curve, the Telescopes, Seefeel, Revolver, Chapterhouse and Secret Shine, but the U.S. spawned the Swirlies, Medicine, Drop Nineteens, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Smashing Orange and Lilys. Even Canadians like An April March and Gleet (later SIANspheric) got in on it. In its earliest days, terms like "dream pop” were thrown around by the UK music press; British journalist Steve Sutherland even dubbed it "the scene that celebrates itself,” a dig at the incestuous tendency of bands to support their peers. But "shoegazing” is the term that stuck, to the chagrin of many participants.

"The difference between the UK and North America is that, over here, ‘shoegazing’ was derided so much, so vehemently, that it really was a dirty word for a long time,” explains Nathaniel Cramp, founder and promoter of Sonic Cathedral, a travelling UK club night and budding record label devoted to shoegazing acts. "The term was originally coined [by Andy Ross of Food Records] as a put-down [of Moose] and I don’t think it ever got past that. Elsewhere, shoegaze was merely an adjective, a genre even, and so people approached it with a more open mind. Only now are kids in the UK getting into bands such as Ride and Slowdive without all the negative baggage associated with them at the time.”

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Eric Green has spent the last four years making Beautiful Noise, a forthcoming scene documentary that features interviews with music makers like Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), Neil Halstead (Slowdive) and Kevin Shields, and fans like Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). "[Shoegazing] is not a word we’re using in the movie,” Green says. "It’s just a press phrase, and most musicians don’t like press tags.”

Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin appears in Beautiful Noise, and the band was active during the scene’s heyday, but despite being on Creation and sharing a lot of characteristic sounds, he’s always argued the band weren’t shoegazers. As much as he rejects the association, he admits it occasionally worked in their favour — at first. "In some ways it gained us exposure and then when the UK music papers decided it wasn't hip anymore it was a pain in the ass,” he says. "It all seems so fleeting and puerile, these ludicrous supposed musical terms, and ‘shoegazer’ was a derogatory term at the time.”

So how did a scene that initially never caught on outside the UK, never produced a runaway success or long-lasting career, and was rejected as a genre by the artists involved manage to leave such a pretty corpse and make an indelible impression?

"Because it’s timeless,” is Nathaniel Cramp’s answer. "Loveless still sounds alien and otherworldly 17 years later. [Slowdive’s] Souvlaki sounds better now than it did in 1993. Perhaps because it was never particularly fashionable and focused upon, it was allowed to develop and — certainly after the attention shifted elsewhere — some incredibly challenging, experimental records were made, such as Chapterhouse’s Blood Music and Slowdive’s Pygmalion

Though Beautiful Noise is historically-oriented, Eric Green’s film points to a new generation of artists like Autolux, Ulrich Schnauss and Serena Maneesh who are evolving the sound of textured guitars and cascading feedback. "I think the bands that we have in our movie have a really mysterious sound,” he says. "[They] foreshadowed a lot of trends.” The scene’s sound has become subtly influential, according to Cramp. "I’m sure most Coldplay fans aren’t familiar with the sound,” he says, "but I’m sure Coldplay are. There are a lot of references in their sound; there’s a track on the new album that sounds like Ulrich Schnauss crossed with Moose. Slowdive and Chapterhouse went down the road of more minimal, electronic dance-influenced music, so they inspired lots of the electronica artists, but at the same time My Bloody Valentine made loud, avant-garde music and inspired those kinds of artists. There’s something for everyone.”

The gamut of shoegaze’s sound characteristics — the sublime textures, unassuming melodies and sonic depths — have proven to be infinitely adaptable to other sounds. They’re everywhere, from mainstream acts like Coldplay and Interpol, to indie favourites Deerhunter and No Age, to leftfield experimenters A Sunny Day in Glasgow and A Place To Bury Strangers, to more indebted bands that were grouped under the topical "nu-gaze” umbrella, like the recently departed Engineers and Film School.

"Those bands experimented with sonic textures and tones, which I loved, but most importantly they were among the moodiest bands of their time,” says Film School front-man Greg Bertens. "You listen to albums like Loveless and Souvlaki and simultaneously feel elation and sinking — I think this is why I was and still am drawn to them. The layered, washy guitars wouldn't mean as much without the emotional intensity.”

But Bertens feels that Film School aren’t just another homage. "It’s easy for us to be labelled ‘shoegaze’ because of the sonic qualities to our music, but our music can be more aggressive and energetic than the traditional blissed-out dream pop,” he says. "Also, we layer in electronic elements like rhythmic samples and keyboards. I think people hear where we’re coming from when they listen to us, but also hear the ways we’re moving things forward. We have our influences, but we don’t want to redo what’s already been done.” Some pop music has worn the influence on its sleeves, but even more evident is the electronic music scene. Artists like Seefeel, Chapterhouse, and particularly Slowdive used reverb, delay pedals and drum loops — staples in electronic music — to evolve their sound, which in turn initiated a new generation of admirers, many of whom appear on Morr Music’s Slowdive tribute album, Blue Skied An’ Clear. "I think Pygmalion had a big impact over a period of time on some electronic-based artists, but it was probably coming much more from that tradition than any of the other records were anyway,” says former Slowdive front-man Neil Halstead.

Though often categorized as electronic artists, acts like M83, Cut Copy and Ulrich Schnauss are just as revered for their ability to combine pop song structures with their laptop prowess. The Berlin-based Schnauss, who contributed a cover of "Crazy For You” to Blue Skied, encapsulates Slowdive’s breadth of sweeping arrangements. "What I really liked about that time was that the line between electronic and indie music was very recognisable — there was a constant exchange of ideas that had an anti-purist attitude,” he explains. "It was melancholy escapism but at the same time, it had a hopeful feeling.”

Maps, essentially Northampton, UK’s James Chapman, manages to coalesce snapping programmed beats and woozy space pop that suggests he learned a thing or two from shoegaze; his debut, We Can Create, earned a Mercury Prize nomination last year. While Chapman is a fan, he feels similarities come more from experimenting. "I guess there is a strong influence in Maps’ sound by that era, but to be honest it wasn’t really conscious. A key factor of the ‘shoegazing’ movement was escapism and that is a strong element of what I try to do with Maps — mostly through sounds and noises, rather than lyrics. I think the electronic part of Maps is what separates it from the original shoegazing scene though.”

That electronic-oriented artists could hear a future in shoegazing isn’t all that surprising; the scene’s influence on metal and noise is. Or is it? Shoegazing often featured moments of intense noise, heaving low-end and doomed expression. MBV’s "holocaust section” sounds even more menacing and strident than Sunn O)))’s Flight of the Behemoth. That doomed blackness of Xasthur? Play Ride’s Smile on vinyl at 78 rpm and you’ll have something akin to Defective Epitaph. More and more doom, drone and black metal artists are adding "shoegaze” to their list of influences.

Mississauga-based label Profound Lore boasts quite a few such acts, although the label’s most obvious ’gazer, France’s Alcest, isn’t one. "Actually none of the shoegazing stuff had any influence on him when he made the album,” claims label owner Chris Bruni. "He hadn’t heard of any of the shoegazing bands — let alone the term itself — when he completed the album. It wasn't until after [Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde] was done that a friend of his showed him bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, and told Neige that these were the bands everyone was comparing Alcest to.”

On the other hand, Caina, aka Hampshire, UK’s Andrew Curtis-Brignell, is unabashed about the influence. Though his roots are in black metal, Caina incorporates a range of sounds from folk and prog to doom and shoegaze. "There’s definitely a conscious shoegaze influence on my sound, no doubt about it, and I think it’s creeping in more and more as I get older,” Curtis-Brignell says. "That distinctive ‘4AD sound’ is something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time. When I first bought a My Bloody Valentine album about eight or nine years ago, it was the most bizarre and extreme thing I’d ever heard, but also so very, very fragile and beautiful. It fired my imagination extraordinarily.

"Until recently the ‘shoegaze’ tag was a bit of an embarrassing term — it always had a hint of the pejorative about it — but I don’t think that admiration for the bands themselves ever went away. I hear hints of shoegaze not only in the more obvious bands such as Alcest, but in the underlying drones and lowlights of bands as diverse as Nortt, Xasthur, Boris and Esoteric. A lot of black metal, particularly the harsh and primitive stuff, has a number of textural similarities to shoegaze, such as the sense of repetition and subtle changes in tone being tools to create an atmosphere. I think that the correlation is there, but whether it’s an influence those people want to admit to is another thing.”

Aidan Baker, one-half of Nadja and Caina label-mate, is known for building walls of noise that are both beautiful and extremely punishing. He sees a parallel between the whiplash noise and weighted textures of a band like My Bloody Valentine and Nadja’s approach. "With MBV, there was a certain sense of immersion to their music, which we similarly strive for. A sort of sonic obliteration, if you will, but done prettily. The main difference may be the influence of artists like Swans or Godflesh, who similarly strived for sonic obliteration, but did it in darker and heavier way — with Nadja we attempt to combine the darkness of industrial metal with the pretty swirliness of shoegazing. [Those] elements do seem to be gaining popularity with heavier bands, but I think that has more to do with the evolution of metal itself and artists like Jesu or the Angelic Process, who are expanding the boundaries of metal, combining it with elements of electronic and pop music.” Baker hits the nail on the head: whether they know it or not, many bands owe a great deal to the shoegazers for forging those initial trails. It may not always get the credit it deserves, but it has longevity on its side and has outlasted more fashionable genres, like grunge and trip-hop, that were watered down by those it influenced.

Or you could just recreate it. Last year, Athens, GA instrumental band Japancakes covered Loveless in its entirety. According to drummer Brant Rackley, "There are all these stories about how maddening it was for My Bloody Valentine to record the album — sleep depravation, labels folding, recording when your brain, eyes, and ears have reached their limit. I can see how and why after just trying to reconstruct our own versions. It didn't take months or years to do ours, but in the time we spent recording, we were getting to point of insanity from time to time.”