A Bluffer’s Guide To Shoegaze

Celebrating the scene that celebrates itself...

Shoegaze is the ultimate form of revenge.

The name itself was meant as an insult, with the media-assisted crushing of the scene representing one of the British music press’ more nefarious deeds.

Yet the scene didn’t perish beneath an avalanche of bad reviews and shifting label priorities – it simply went underground. Re-emerging in the early Noughties, shoegaze blended itself with noise rock, electronics, and more to create all manner of sub-genres, attaching themselves to countries around the globe.

Spreading online, shoegaze reached a new generation, sparking high profile reformations from some of the scene’s key players.

Arguably, the DNA for much of what would follow can be largely traced to two singular groups. Cocteau Twins elevated goth’s dreamier edge into a phenomenally seductive brew, with albums such as 1986’s ‘Victorialand’ blurring sound into a beautiful mess via an intricate array of effects pedals and blissed out vocals.

Another group with Scottish roots provided a heavier, more chaotic strand. The Jesus & Mary Chain added a buzzsaw distortion to 60s bubblegum pop, burrowing their howls of vengeance beneath layer after layer of punishing feedback.

It took another Creation group to bring these two elements together, creating an almighty explosion…

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My Bloody Valentine – ‘Loveless’

‘Loveless’ may well be the definitive shoegaze album. Blissfully beautiful while retaining a sonic violence, the album’s much-mythologised, wholly tortured creative process virtually bankrupted Creation Records and was so delayed it arguably missed out on shoegaze’ brief flirtation with music press credibility.

But what an album, and what a statement. A record that exists purely on its own terms, it’s a head-long rush into rock futurism, from the death-defying tremolo lunges of ‘Only Shallow’ to the endless electronic invention of ‘Soon’.

Despite enormous critical praise it was My Bloody Valentine’s last album for Creation, and their last for anyone until 2013.

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Ride – ‘Nowhere’

Given the negative reaction shoegaze would eventually gain from the music press it’s difficult to imagine the sheer weight of hype around Ride in the summer of 1990. The Oxford group were a dizzying live property, while a series of EP releases had alerted fans to a blossoming songwriting ability that measured shoegaze abandon against a clear knowledge of classic 60s pop.

‘Nowhere’ would expertly balance these twin poles, effortlessly eclipsing the hype to become one of the scene’s longest-lasting moments. It’s a remarkably youthful listen, from the odd moment of lyrical naivety to its inherent freshness – recorded live in the studio with Marc Waterman, before Alan Moulder supplied the final mix.

Compact, concise, and wonderfully unified, ‘Nowhere’ is the sound of promise realised, and with those final notes of ‘Vapour Trail’ is supplies shoegaze with some of its most strikingly beautiful songwriting.

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Slowdive – ‘Souvlaki’

Slowdive were the most cruelly misunderstood band of their era. Sonic bandits with a rare live intensity, they were miscast as bowl-cut pedal twiddlers, the band who Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards claimed to hate more than Hitler.

The group’s second album, ‘Souvlaki’ emerged after Creation Records dismissed their initial batch of 40 (count ‘em) new songs. Produced in collaboration with Brian Eno, what the label got instead was an aural masterpiece, broadening the lexicon of hypnagogic guitar music to touch on Aphex Twin, dub, the emerging sounds of drum ‘n’ bass, and more. Even after their 2014 re-union it still sounds like the future.

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Boo Radleys – ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’

Boo Radleys were never quite made for their times. One hit wonders with a catalogue of real depth, their movement from noise pop wannabes to shoegaze experimentalists to Top Of The Pops darlings is a truly singular journey.

Released in 1992, ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ is perhaps the band’s most purely shoegaze endeavour, with the aquatic guitar effects lingering against neo-psychedelic vocals.

Even here, though, Boo Radleys can hardly be accused of delivering a genre piece. The songwriting is taut, while Ed Buller’s production layers some unexpected moments – brass flourishes, acoustic workouts – with that Kevin Shields-inspired rush into the red.

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Swervedriver – ‘Mezcal Head’

‘Mezcal Head’ is the shoegaze album that isn’t a shoegaze album at all. Tied into the Scene That Celebrates Itself through similar geography, Swervedriver were much too rocky, too punk-indebted to ever fully commit to the often lugubrious tones of their Creation labelmates.

At times, though, the similarities become clear. ‘Mezcal Head’ recalls American groups such as Husker Du and Sonic Youth, fusing shoegaze to the emerging sounds of Seattle’s grunge scene in the process. Alan Moulder’s production pushes the needle defiantly into ear-bleeding territory, yet the band’s classical songwriting sense remains – check out lead single ‘Duel’ or the hard-hitting ‘Last Train To Satansville’.

Arguably buried beneath the Britpop avalanche and label politics, ‘Mezcal Head’ is a crucial listen, the most fully-realised, thrilling statement from a band who no one seemed to understand apart from themselves.

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A Place To Bury Strangers – ‘Exploding Head’

Often hailed as the loudest band in New York, A Place To Bury Strangers’ astonishing, corrosive, hard-hitting live shows pushed shoegaze into intense new places. Picking up on the mythology of the original era, the band decided to play the innovators at their own game – indeed, when My Bloody Valentine returned Kevin Shields purchased guitar pedals crafted by the band’s Oliver Ackermann, and his Death By Audio company.

‘Exploding Head’ is a black hole of guitar noise, an unrelenting feast of feedback that still feels completely disorienting. Part endurance test and part blood-curdling thrill, it acts as a homage to the founding fathers of noise rock while gleefully trampling all over their legacy.

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Asobi Seksu – ‘Citrus’

Much is made of the shoegaze scene’s tendencies towards noise, towards sending fans scurrying for their ear-plugs amid a feedback driven panic. However this area of music has also produced some strikingly beautiful songwriting moments, with New York’s Asobi Seksu using the shoegaze template as a map for the sensual.

2006 full length ‘Citrus’ embodies the fruity tang of the title, first shocking the tongue before dissolving into nothing. Spearheading a new wave of shoegaze groups with little to no knowledge of the British-led press backlash, the band swapped sonic austerity for chiming guitars and a renewed sense of innocence.

With song titles such as ‘Pink Cloud Tracing Paper’ the group’s music bordered on the fey, but offset this through sheer sonic excellence, an approach that embodied classicism while never being revivalist. In a way, it’s become a calling card for a new generation of shoegaze groups, able to cherry pick their influences while remaining beautifully unfaithful to those original archetypes.

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