Introduction to Hipster Music: Shoegaze

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Marijuana isn’t legal yet, but that’s not stopping a whole slew of bands from creating soundscapes reminiscent of a midnight joint circle. ‘Shoegaze’ referred to the often lazy stage presence of guitarists who just stared into their shoes (hence the name). Chords are irrelevant in this realm. Imagine if Nirvana turned up the delay to eleven. What you get is a slowed down version of their not-so hit single Endless, Nameless. For a genre that’s built to sound like crap, there’s a whole lotta innovation going on behind the scenes. The guitarists cling on to their whammies as they strum, a predecessor to that wub-wub we’ve come to know and love. And the guitar pedals feed into each other like a mechanical 10-man human centipede. The sound goes through so much processing; you’d be asking your piano teacher to remind you what middle C was.

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Top to bottom: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride.

The holy trinity of shoegaze consist of 90s legends My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride. If you’re one of those hipsters that need to show your Starbucks barista how cultured you are, maybe start with MBV. Vocalist and guitarist Kevin Shields siphoned close to £250,000 from their label to bring us Loveless (1991). The opening track ‘Only Shallow’ acquaints their sound nicely. Its main riff sounds like a pregnant dinosaur prancing over bedrock built out of Bilinda Butcher’s power chords. All this happens in front of Colm Ó Cíosóig whose drumming sounds like Green Day if they were sober. The album itself was recorded ‘whenever the band felt like it’ over a period of three years. Shields allegedly took an entire week just to get the tambourine sounded perfectly right. Funny thing is, you can’t hear it in any of the songs.

Slowdive’s aesthetics can only be described as melancholy – repackaging The Cure’s ethereal elements for your next Fear and Loathing roadtrip. Despite looking like the goth kids from South Park, Slowdive demonstrate a more relaxing side of distorted guitars pumping out at full volume. Initially dismissed as a “porridge” of sounds, Souvlaki (1993) has been marinating over the years into a cult classic. Pitchfork.tv even released an hour-long documentary featuring interviews by the Berkshire quintet. The more radio-friendly highlights include ‘Alison’ & ‘When The Sun Hits’ containing enough twee to make even The Smiths blush. However, we recommend you listen to ‘Melon Yellow’ alone in your dorm, at two in the morning, on loop. It’s the closest you can get to taking illegal drugs legally.

If MBV is headbang and Slowdive is you crying in your Myvi, Ride slides in beautifully between the two. Nowhere (1990) manages to balance equally between Britpop, indie and shoegaze – a sort of musical equivalent to sweet-and-sour pork. Some argue they sound closest to The Jesus and Mary Chain, the band that started it all. Guitarist Andy Bell (who would go on to play in Oasis of ‘Wonderwall’ fame) emerges with a sound that predates the neo-psychedelia The Flaming Lips have been refining. At full volume, ‘Polar Bear’ makes you feel like you’re being drowned in an ocean of nails. For the musical pleb, there’s the more accessible ‘Vapour Trail’ which imagines what dating in the 90s felt like. Another highlight of the album is the mechanical precision of Laurence Colbert’s drumming cutting through the buttery layers of Andy Bell and Mark Garderner’s guitars; like the punchy bass and snare in ‘Dreams Burn Down’, seemingly a nod to John Bonham’s ghost.

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Source: Laura-Lynn Petrick

For something more recent, there’s Deathconsciousness (2008) by Have a Nice Life, one of shoegaze’s most enduring classics – created by accident. With a $1,000 budget, the band couldn’t afford fancy mics and needed a whole lotta reverb to hide what seems to be mic quality from your average Dota player. The lyrics are another highlight. With an album peppered with mythological references and steampunk subject matter, the record feels like it was recorded in the 1800s (it’s not). You might wanna skip the seven-minute opening track though. Its length is as pretentious as its title, and it’s not for entry-level shoegazers. And be warned, every song is depressing as hell; save this one for when your cat dies.

As of now, there’s yet for any major shoegaze band to appear on the Malaysian radar (hint hint, Music Society). But for some reason, there’s a thriving scene on the other side of the lake. Philippines has produced cult classics like Moscow Olympics’s Cut the World (2008) and Sleepwalk Circus’s Great Secret Show (2010).

Honourable mentions

  1. Kairon; IRSE! – Ujubasajuba (2014) [Russian]
  2. Alcest – Souvenirs d’un autre monde (2007) [French]
  3. The Verve – A Storm in Heaven (1993)
  4. Swervedriver – Never Lose That Feeling [EP] (1993)
  5. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy (1985)

By Joseph Lu
Header image: culturacolectiva.com

I live for 90s alternative rock and sad Swedish power ballads.

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