Shfl Guide: First-wave Shoegaze

Much like the ground zero goth scene in the UK a decade prior — and given some overt nods to various inspirations from that era, the connection makes a real sense — the acts out of the same country that became known as the original shoegaze bands didn’t set out to actually BE stereotypically shoegaze bands, they were just bands who had a particular idea of how to approach things. 

Unlike goth, however, there was a clearly obvious band that galvanized many more to follow: My Bloody Valentine. Having spent much of the mid-eighties in the shadow of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s sonic impact on UK indie pop and rock as such, in 1988 Kevin Shields and company audibly levelled up by drawing on wider inspirations like Sonic Youth, Public Enemy and Dinosaur Jr., welded to an appreciation of earlier pop lodestones ranging from the Beach Boys and Dusty Springfield to Wire, to create a series of EPs and albums over the next three years that were at once dreamily catchy and astonishingly, overwhelmingly loud. 

Various formative acts or ones that were already contemporary soon clocked into this general kind of melange or found ways to make their own separate but simpatico approaches feel like wider parts of a sudden new general sound, with the Creation label in particular being seen as a central point of reference. Again though, as with goth, there was never any one exact approach beyond a sense of hooks and crushing noise in equal measure: the spiky shimmer and tart lyrical approach of Lush bore little resemblance to the sprawling, distinctly American-inspired punch of Swervedriver or the serene washes and vast, deep echo of Slowdive, to name just three acts out of the seeming rush of many. 

There was a rapid amount of music press-driven buzz that led to attention both at home and abroad, with a variety of American acts soon responding in turn as many of the groups toured the States. However, monumental as MBV’s 1991 Loveless was, the release of Nevermind and Ten around the same time showed where general attention was going, and the putative scene as such fragmented as some acts adapted to grunge or Britpop, others simply broke up, and general appreciation went underground. It all sowed seeds for much more to come, though, and that many of these acts were rapturously received following various reunions and new albums in the 21st century felt rather like delayed poetic justice.

...Fluidtrance Centauri... cover

While Czech band The Ecstasy of St. Theresa had already put some initial toes in the shoegaze-adjacent water with Sussurate, it was this subsequent EP — a formal release of one of the many famed John Peel radio sessions — which blew minds worldwide when word got around. The jaw-dropping majesty of the opening “Fluidum,” where stark, quiet sections were suddenly bookended by feedback/pedal heavy parts that felt like a listener was literally drowning, almost said it all, but “Alpha Centauri” and “Trance (Between The Stars)” continued the remarkable mood.

Gala cover

Compiling Lush’s first three singles and EPs along with a couple of bonus tracks — including a delightful run through of Abba’s “Hey Hey Helen” — Gala initially served as a formal introduction of the band to American audiences, but was also a striking summary of just how much the group had already achieved. Combining reflection and almost winsome feelings with sharp edges as needed — “Bitterness” being a prime example — the original quartet created a series of sparkling songs that got read as shoegaze by many but were primarily just good loud, intense and sometimes sweet listens.

Everything's Alright Forever cover

The Boo Radleys hadn’t started on Creation but by the time they joined in 1992 it almost wasn’t a surprise given their shoegaze-friendly ability to combine a lot of righteous noise with sweet melodies. Everything’s Alright Forever is simultaneously a great album in said shoegaze vein and also something that shows the band wasn’t going to quite stay there, as their general pop obsessions which would start to flourish later sometimes felt like they were being quashed more by the noisier side of things, only emerging in fits and starts (and on the cascading “Does This Hurt?,” in a full, inspiring rush).

Whirlpool cover

Following what was then already something of a standard and cliche in UK indie terms — three EPs to establish a presence, then a full-length album — Whirlpool felt a touch like a hang-together-effort at points, where individual songs connected more than the whole. But those songs were something else, an early take on shoegaze that brought in hip-hop breaks and full psych rock crunch amid the sweeter melodies — not to mention a separate bonus vinyl 12" with a total noise racket called “Die Die Die.”

Pubic Fruit cover

The brawling, mechanistic if not near industrial blast of Curve on their earliest EPs remains a remarkable example of artistic reinvention, with singer Toni Halliday and guitarist Dean Garcia ditching the mannered mainstream 80s rock of their State of Play days for something far more viscerally thrilling. Compiling their first three EPs with an extra remix of their subsequent single “Fait Accompli,” Pubic Fruit is almost a greatest hits release, with such shattering songs like “Ten Little Girls,” “Coast is Clear,” “Frozen,” “Clipped” and “Die Like a Dog” showcasing Halliday’s cool, sharp singing and Garcia’s rampaging feedback and arrangements.

Raise cover

Swervedriver’s debut album, following what often seemed in UK indie terms like a requisite three EPs, combined the lead tracks of each of those releases with six more to create a classic case of grass-is-always-greener — where so many listeners in the US were obsessing over UK bands inadvertantly creating shoegaze, Swervedriver themselves were clearly dreaming of America. Adam Franklin’s wounded drawl sounds like a somewhat winsome J. Mascis more than once, and there’s a frayed-at-the-edges sprawl to the performances that makes for great highway-driving music.

Isn’t Anything cover

The full-length ground zero for a sound and style that emerged in its wake, Isn’t Anything certainly wasn’t created as a shoegaze album, much less the original one, but that’s exactly what history has done for it thanks to everything it inspired. My Bloody Valentine had been around for some years but following the “You Made Me Realize” single they’d worked out a thrilling approach that wedded softly sung melodies to monstrous, careening riffs and arrangements, a cotton candy glaze over chaos on songs like “Feed Me With Your Kiss” and “Sueisfine.”

Nowhere cover

Ride had already burst out of the gate with a rush with their earliest EPs, almost singlehandedly defining shoegaze as a combination of My Bloody Valentine-damaged hooks and noise, floppy haircuts and a great secret weapon, the harmonizing of guitarists Mark Gardener and Andy Bell. Nowhere proved to be that most unusual of beasts, a full-length debut that actually built well on what had preceded it: keeping only the epochal wallop of “Dreams Burn Down” from the third EP, the rest of the album ranged from the giddiness of “Kaleidoscope” to the moodily anthemic “Vapour Trail.”

Ferment cover

In one of the most unexpected musical twists of 1992, perhaps the biggest shoegaze band in America — or at least the band most closely associated with that approach — was Catherine Wheel, thanks to the notable alternative radio success of the stirring “Black Metallic” single. The band themselves tended to be more of a fellow traveller with said sonic style, with an audible debt to both Pink Floyd’s ruminative side and Neil Young’s gorgeously loud one playing out throughout the quite strong album and songs like “I Want To Touch You” and “Salt.”

Just for a Day cover

At the time, some critics saw Slowdive’s debut album as not quite equalling the standards of the three remarkable EPs that came before it, but time has made the stronger case for Just For A Day, an album which arguably has inspired as many musicians across genres as Loveless has — perhaps even more. The reason lies in the quintet’s ability to interweave melody and mood, less the raging beauty of My Bloody Valentine as the sense of deep oceans and vast skies conjured up by the performances on songs like “Catch the Breeze,” “Brighter” and “Primal.”

The Comforts of Madness cover

Not entirely a shoegaze album but claimed by fans and bands alike — an early Ride radio session featured a cover of their majestic and melancholy debut single “Sight of You,” featured here in a rerecorded form — The Comforts of Madness and Pale Saints in general had a more considered, cool approach happening. Credit there lies with lead singer and guitarist Ian Masters, whose sweet reserve often perfectly matches a song — a sped up cover of Opal’s “Fell From the Sun” is a highlight, showing a gift for reinterpretation that would recur later, as in the album’s slow-to-fast-to-slow closing number “Time Thief.”

Bleach cover

Compiling their first two EPs, Eclipse and Snag, on this self-titled release Bleach made the case for a style that, while it gained them plaudits from the shoegaze side of things, showed that there were plenty of ways to approach such a sound than a stereotypical one. Salli Carson’s sharp, spirited singing steered clear of cool crooning or soft sighs, matching the more direct, confrontational tone of the lyrics, lending such songs as “Wipe It Away” and the slow-building punch of “Burn” an edge not often found among the group’s seeming fellow travelers.

Sonny & Sam cover

This American-only EP, drawing on songs from three separate EP releases in the UK, capture Moose’s earliest days, when they were seen to be as much a part of the incipient shoegaze canon as anything else. The steady, country-tinged slow burn of “This River Never Will Run Dry” shows more clearly the much different approach the band would soon embrace, but other songs like the moody “Do You Remember?” and the increasingly louder wash of “Suzanne” help show how such connections came about to begin with.

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