Wednesday, February 10, 2016

dreampop a/k/a shoegaze

director's cut, New York Times, December 1 1991

by Simon Reynolds

This year, the most happening phenomenon in British alternative rock has been a wave of hazy neo-psychedelic guitar groups, for which the UK rock press has yet to settle on a label. Some critics call them "shoe-gazers", because of the groups' onstage bashfulness. Others prefer the tag "The Scene That Celebrates Itself": groups often fraternise together at each others'  shows or at London's Syndrome club. But perhaps the most useful term is "dream-pop", as it evokes these groups' blurry, blissful sound and "out of this world" aura. Currently, the key dream-pop groups (My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Lush, Chapterhouse, Ride, Swervedriver) have US major label records already released or in the pipeline. As yet, records by rising bands (Pale Saints, Boo Radleys, Moose, The Catherine Wheel, The Telescopes) are only available as British imports, but may soon be picked up by American labels.

Like all UK pop 'movements' (e.g. 1989/90's Manchester scene), the groups in question tend to resent being lumped together. But sufficient similarities exist to show that dream-pop is not a media hallucination. Dream-pop groups combine nebulous, distorted guitars with murmured vocals mixed so low that they're sometimes completely smudged into the wall of noise. This dazed-and-confused style was pioneered by US groups like Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. But compared to their American forebears, the British groups tend to be more fragile and androgynous, their swoony harmonies reminescent of The Byrds or Love. Other influences include the ethereal soundscapes of the Cocteau Twins, and the fractured "avant-garage" rock of Sonic Youth.

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 USA earlier this year.

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 US college radio hit  this summer. Ride's slightly more abrasive "Nowhere" album (Sire 26462-2) and EP releases have enjoyed chart success in Britain. Fronted by two female singer/guitarists, Lush are a London quartet whose second Reprise album "Spooky" is set for January release. Lush's iridescent mosaic of spangly guitars and frosted harmonies owes a lot to the studio techniques of their producer Robin Guthrie from the Cocteau Twins, but is captivating nonetheless.

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 Detroit group like The Stooges and MC5, but filtered through the innovations of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, Swervedriver's sound simulates the exhilaration of pure speed. Songs like "Pile Up" and "Son Of Mustang Ford", from the debut album "Raise" (A&M 75021-5376), are steeped in the mythology of the American freeway.

The problem for the first wave of dreampop groups is that as their style has become increasingly identifiable and marketable, they're having to compete with an onrush of opportunistic imitators. Pioneers like My Bloody Valentine are obliged to reinvent themselves again and again, in order to preserve their uniqueness. It's the oldest story in rock'n'roll.

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