In Praise of Shoegaze

slowdive1
Rachel Goswell of Slowdive

And there in the square he lay alone 
without face without crown 
and the angel who looked upon 
never came down 

you never know what day could pick you baby 
out of the air, out of nowhere 

~ Sun Kil Moon, “Duk Koo Kim” (2003)

Was it excess, or a change in consumer preference?  Either or both, progressive rock music of the 1970’s ran afoul of the burgeoning punk rock scene.  Carefully constructed compositions ranging from eight to 25 minutes (or longer) gave way to three-minute outbursts of street angst resonating with a culture sick and tired of inflation and corruption and openly questioning the permanent things — things (classical, jazz, church music) that progressive rock had integrated (unwittingly, subconsciously) into its ethos.

Then, after a decade of new wave, new romanticism, and sundry forms of techno (music for the masses) there arose the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine.   Suddenly, pop song structure, melodic hooks, and outfront lead vocals were enveloped in a blizzard of distortion and dissonance.  Critics, ever wary of the latest “art” project, disparagingly labeled it “shoegazing,” noting the performers’ penchant for staring down (likely at their effects pedals) on stage.  Steve Sunderland (Melody Maker) went a step further, describing what he called “The Scene that Celebrates Itself” — in part, because the gazers attended each other’s gigs and drank together.  It was too much like rugby and less like football.  If the former is about gentlemen playing a hooligan’s game, then the press were quick to spot what they suspected were middle class values at play.  This could not end well.

At length did cross an Albatross / Thorough the fog it came…

But to back up a bit.  Whatever spirit inhabited the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks seems to have been carried aloft during that show’s run, falling out of the sky in the Thames Valley.  It descended upon a group of Reading teenagers who called themselves Slowdive.   Where to begin?  If one samples Slowdive’s output (three albums, six EP’s) there is no way to pin down the band’s idiom.   There are the ostensibly pop ballads (“Alison,” “Sleep”), Eno-induced trances (“Souvlaki Space Station,” “Changes”), pre-Kid A ambient exercises (“Option One,” “Sinewaves”), dark grunge (“So Tired”), ethereal raptures (“Catch the Breeze,” “Shine”), and others (“Albatross”) that defy categorization.

Like sorcerers they summoned other-worldly sounds from their guitars.  If there’s a common thread it is the drone — catching the breeze of an unorthodox riff, maybe two chords, and riding it in an ever-widening gyre.

Even a few of their loyal fans would say Slowdive spun out of control with 1995’s experimental Pygmalion.  By the time of its release British ears were drawn to Oasis and Blur, a Britpop North-South rivalry loaded to the hilt with working class ethos the press could celebrate.

“Revolution,” yes.  “Revolution 9,” no.  Within a year Slowdive had morphed into the country/folk Mojave 3.

I’ve Got a Gal… in Ypsilanti

While Slowdive was relinquishing the gazing muse, another obscure stateside band was taking it up.  Trey Many (pr. “may’-nee”), the drummer for Warn Defever’s His Name is Alive, was developing a side project at Eastern Michigan University.   Together with art student Amon Krist (daughter of folk singer Jan Krist) he formed Velour 100 and signed with Seattle’s alternative label, Tooth & Nail.

Velour+100
Amon Krist (left) and Trey Many

Velour 100’s first full-length recording was Fall Sounds (1996) with Many on all instruments and Krist on lead vocals (and occasional acoustic guitar).  Right away the listener finds the music here focused and thematically linked — a concept album based on the pair’s experiences of loss and renewal informed by their Christian faith.  The same dense, hypnotic atmospherics present with Slowdive are found here; but Many keeps the listening interesting with changes and unusual time signatures.  “Dub Space” is a sparkling eight and half minute tone poem that could have emerged from the waterfall at the end of “Close to the Edge.”  The strongest track on the album — and, in my view, among the best three and a half minutes of the ’90s — is “Flourish”:

http://grooveshark.com/s/Flourish/504rKT?src=5

Velour 100 never received a bad critical review.  As Krist departed to complete her studies and launch a teaching career, the duo’s first demo recording was re-recorded and released as Songs From the Rainwater EP to high praise.  Many produced one more LP, Of Color Bright (1997) that featured three female lead vocalists, including ex-Sixpence None the Richer guitarist Tess Wiley.  Wiley co-wrote “Dolphin Grey,” which showcases her distinctive alto against a splash of jangling guitars:

http://grooveshark.com/s/Dolphin+Grey/4FPo6B?src=5

Many recorded a final four-song EP, For An Open Sky (1999), with soon-to-breakout vocalist Rosie Thomas.  He now lends his formidable production skills to projects for other bands.

Ghosts of the Great Gaze

By the end of the ’90s “shoegazing” (or “dream pop”) was figured a dead letter.  Its artsy sensibilities (pretenses, to some) were destined to remain out of favor with an X Factor world.  But even into the 2000’s there remain artists who pay homage to the genre.   An excellent example is the expansive “Duk Koo Kim” by Mark Kozelek’s side project, Sun Kil Moon.  Aptly described by one listener as “magical sad tragic wonderful,” it is a meditation on mortality inspired by the Korean boxer who died from injuries suffered in a bout with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982 (in fact, much of Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway is inspired by the stories of fighters).

In shoegazing fashion, the guitars ring and leave auras of reverb in their wake, Kozelek’s falsettos submerged in the melodies.  Unlike Slowdive’s binary pieces, “Duk Koo Kim” has three distinct sections, and (in prog rock proportion) sprawls over 14 minutes — each representing the number of rounds Kim lasted in the ring before succumbing.

Come to me once more my love 
show me love I’ve never known 
sing to me once more my love 
words from your younger years 
sing to me once more my love 
songs that I love to hear 

8 thoughts on “In Praise of Shoegaze

  1. eheter

    Thanks for posting, Chuck, very interesting. The lyrics for ‘Duk Koo Kim’ serve as a haunting reminder of a very tragic event, I can still remember that well more than 30 years on.

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  2. Quite the coincidence you writing about this right now, as My Bloody Valentine ACTUALLY FINALLY released the follow-up to Loveless just four days ago – with absolutely no fanfare at all! Only 22 years later… Check it out here: http://www.mybloodyvalentine.org/ I suspect that most MBV fans have no idea it’s been released.

    I used to be very heavily into shoegazing music. From ’91 until ’95 it was my favorite genre of music. I got to see most of the big pioneering bands live: MBV, the Cocteau Twins, Jesus & Mary Chain, Ride, Lush, Curve, Catherine Wheel, Stereolab, Swervedriver, and in fact even Slowdive in ’94. That was just an incredible show. I was playing in a Washington, DC shoegazing band at that time, and our bass player was deeply, deeply moved by that show, as we all were, to be honest, but he especially – I think it was truly a life-changing experience for him. But in fact, all of these bands were incredible live. Goosebumps were plentiful at each one of them. They transported the listener to another place. The combination of volume and distortion, the delicate vocal melodies, and dreamy, ambient reverb effects was always hypnotizing. I remember often feeling as if I was levitating at these shows (no drugs involved – not directly, anyway) due to the power of the music. It was a good time to be young…

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  3. Simply put, Sun Kil Moon is not shoegaze. Awesome? Definitely. Shoegaze? Definitely not. And I daresay Mark would barf at being considered “prog.” Props to Ivan for name-checking Swervedriver.

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    1. chuckicks

      Tim, you’re right that Sun Kil Moon is neither shoegaze nor prog, and yes. They are awesome. I simply note that “Duk Loo Kim” shares common elements with the genres. I look for opportunities to turn readers of this site on to great bands in other orbits.

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