Lyrically, dream-pop celebrates rapturous and transcendent experiences, using drug or mystical imagery. Disorientation and loss of self are both desired and feared. Love is either presented as a purely halcyon experience, or as a "chaos of desire" (My Bloody Valentine), in which subconscious undercurrents of violence surface. Other songs deal with bewilderment, desperation, and despondency. A common theme is the desire to transcend the drab confines of everyday life, by "going nowhere fast" (Ride's "Drive Blind", Swervedriver's "Sandblasted").
This yearning for escape or oblivion relates to the groups' socio-political environment. After 12 years of Conservative government, idealism and constructive political involvement seem futile. At the same time, dropping out is an increasingly unviable option. Struggling indie bands used to live off unemployment benefit. But during the Eighties, the government waged a war of attrition against this bohemian "dole culture", harassing claimants in order to pressurise them into join government training schemes. Now Prime Minister Major's government is attempting to make squatting (another refuge for impoverished musicians) illegal. As well as deteriotating living conditions, young indie bands suffer the "twentysomething" malaise that was widely discussed in the
Having grown up in the aftermath of punk, they're making abrasive guitar rock at a time when the mainstream is dominated by baby-boomer music. Confronted by a climate of circumscribed options, both politically and in terms of youth culture, dream-pop groups retreat from public life and long-term goals in order to look for transcendence in their private lives and the here-and-now. They're dreaming their lives away.
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It was a London-based quartet called My Bloody Valentine who pioneered the dreampop sound. My Bloody Valentine rose to prominence in 1988 with two EP's, "You Made Me Realise" and "Feed Me With Your Kiss", and the album "Isn't Anything", which featured a self-invented technique the group's leader Kevin Shields calls "glide guitar". This involves "modulating the tone directly, using a tremolo arm, rather than processing it through effects". Instead of distinct riffs, the technique produces an amorphous drone that seems to swarm out of the speakers and envelop the listener, with an effect that's at once visceral and disembodied. The normal, direct correspondence between the players' physical gestures and the sounds produced is severed, to the extent that the group seem to disappear in their own music.
My Bloody Valentine developed this sound further on 1990's "Glider" EP. On the track "Soon," ghostly guitar harmonics and backing vocals hovered over a churning funk groove influenced by rap and acid house. ""The weird sampling on hip hop records was what encouraged us to attempt to create eerie effects on the guitar in the first place," says Mr Shields. "Soon" won the admiration of Brian Eno, who described it as "the vaguest music ever to have been a hit". Appropriately, their next EP "Tremolo" ventured even closer to Mr Eno's ambient music. On the blissfully disorientating "To Here Knows When", My Bloody Valentine sampled their own guitar feedback and played it on a keyboard. "Soon" and "To Here Knows When" both appear on the group's new album "Loveless" (Sire 26759-2), an ear-baffling tour de force of symphonic chaos that wholly justifies Mr Shields contention that "the electric guitar still contains an unexplored universe of noises."
Of the groups that emerged in My Bloody Valentines' wake, Slowdive are probably the most distinctive. Unfortunately, their debut album "Just For A Day" set for US release next January on SBK Records, doesn't display that originality as effectively as the British import-only EPs that precede it. Slowdive's sound is more serene than MBV. Relying heavily on effects pedals, the group unfurl billowing wafts of gauzy sound, amongst which nestle the pallid, demure vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. Songs like "Shine", "Catch The Breeze" and "Morningrise" have an idyllic, pastoral air, doubtless inspired by the Oxfordshire countryside around the group's hometown. "Just For A Day" is suffused with an elegaic, sepia-tinted melancholy. Lyrically, there's a yearning for lost innocence. On their first EP, "Avalyn" turned Avalon (the Edenic "isle of apples" of Arthurian legend) into a girl's name. Mr Halstead confirms that many of the songs are about "evoking certain poignant moments that you hark back to nostalgically".
Slowdive belong to a new generation of British groups too young to remember punk rock. Mr Halstead talks of being more influenced by Pink Floyd than The Sex Pistols. Slowdive's formative pop experiences involve post-punk groups like The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees, whose arty approach was closer to Seventies progressive groups than punk's angry minimalism. Mr Halstead says Slowdive avoid social comment, hoping rather "to create something big and beautiful and sort of timeless." This art for art's sake approach has led some to dismiss Slowdive and other dreampopsters as apolitical, middle class aesthetes.
Two other groups, Ride and Chapterhouse, offer a neat-and-tidy, classical structured version of the My Bloody Valentine sound. Chapterhouse's "Whirlpool" (RCA/Dedicated 3006-2-R13) blended clinically layered guitars, fey vocals and groove-oriented rhythms, to become a
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Swervedriver, the most Americanophile and least androgynous of the dreampop groups. Rooted in the "raw power" of