LIGHT FROM A DEAD STAR: HOW THE HEAVENLY NOBODIES OF THE 1990s ARE SHAPING OUR SONIC LANDSCAPE

Last week, Oxford’s finest prodigal sons Ride announced plans for their first album in over 20 years. Combine that with the fact Slowdive are primed to release a new record. Oh, and AR Kane are making a lotta live noise all over the world. And although The Jesus and Mary Chain have been back together a while, they’ve let loose their plans to put out Damage and Joy, their first album since 1998 next March. And the likes of Lush, Swervedriver and Flying Saucer Attack have all blessed us over the past year with their first new music since the 1990s. It’s almost as if the evocative, dreamy sounds of the decade have crept their way back into contemporary culture’s cache, little by little, without us even really noticing, until bam! Suddenly we’re in the midst of some kind of sonic groundhog day, where 1991 seems to be happening over and over again.

What strikes you most, retrospectively listening to the music of the first wave of shoegazers and the dream-pop provocateurs of the 80s, is that sonically, it’s hard to tie it down to any particular time period. Dreamy guitar textures that don’t sound like guitars at all, smooth vocal caresses and the occasional twinkling synth are very much removed from the boozy lad culture of Britpop and raucous grunge aesthetic we’ve come to associate with the decade. So perhaps then, it’s no real surprise that shoegazing didn’t take off in the 1990s, becoming more a scene with a concentrated following than something which broke into the mainstream. Even though all the pop sensibilities were there, the music was far more forward thinking than the grunge and Britpop explosions which took the nation by storm less than 12 months later. In the 2010s, however, these forward thinking footwear enthusiasts with that fearlessly fused the noisiest and dreamiest elements of guitar rock are being, once more, championed and celebrated worldwide, and the genre is in the midst of a humongous reunion. Could it be that the art of these noisemongers was so forward thinking that only we, a 21st century audience can only retrospectively fall in love with it?

Hold up ship, though; maybe it all makes perfect sense. Perfect sense that dream-pop arrived fully formed in the mid to late eighties, and that we’re obsessing over the ethereal now. Reagan. Thatcher. Cold War. Chaos. Sometimes in situations like this, acoustic guitar-wielding protest singers are churned up in droves, unshaven and angry. Conversely though, it can inspire an almost carnal, creative desire to make something otherworldly; in the bleak late 80s, escapism in music was not just a nicety but a need. Perhaps, in post-Brexit Britain, in Trump’s America, and in the rest of the war torn world, a desire to escape is just as pressing as it was way back when. It’s perhaps this climate that has bred a misty eyed lust for the bygone sounds of Ride, Slowdive and the like, with the need to escape more pressing than ever before. The attitude seems to be thus; what we need in the bedlam of 2016, is for it to no longer feel like a 2016. To pick and choose elements of the creme de la creme of 1990s’ escapism, and drag them kicking and dreaming into the 21st century. For those in a Britain riddled by austerity, for young people growing up knowing they’ll spend their lives in debt, there’s a need to escape to a dream world – hence the increased popularity of magic realism as a genre of teen fiction. Dream-pop has a similar function to those needing a dreamworld to escape to; if you can’t have a perfect reality, then perhaps escaping to a 1990s style oasis is the best kinda antidote.

In 2016, almost everything from the 1990s’ thriving underground art repertoire is back, making a lotta noise. Even Twin Peaks is set for a reboot early next year. This widespread revival of the decade doesn’t so much apply to a revival of the ‘Scene That Celebrates Itself’, as it does centre completely and utterly around it. Much of the high-billing slots at festivals are filled with its provocateurs, and it’s almost as if anything that the big 90s bands do instantly garners more attention than an equivalent from a modern underground band of similar stature.

As well as that, a litany of modern bands are taking the sound of 90s shoegaze and dream-pop, and making it a beast that is completely their own. Among the most popular and most acclaimed indie bands in the world today, a shoegaze influence is anything but subtle. Notable among these are The Horrors, Beach House and DIIV, all of whom have, or at least possess the potential to headline festivals, their sound a perfect bricolage of the past and present. The Horrors especially, are a band of renowned crate diggers, upfront about high-key music geekery. Guitarist Joshua Hayward said in a recent interview: “I’m always searching for something which sounds like blurred vision, that’s my ultimate goal”. Hayward’s a big fan of My Bloody Valentine’s six-string shaman Kevin Shields, but is hell bent on taking the elements of shoegaze and making them into something wholly modern and fresh. “[Shoegaze revival bands] are recreating a moment, which is perfectly valid and nice to listen to, but that’s not what we’re about,” the guitarist said.

The Horrors’ approach is not one uncommon among experimental guitar bands. A desire to drive forwards into the future, whilst taking elements of outstanding beauty from sonic treasure troves of music past to make something entirely own. Increasingly though, the pastures of 1990s dream-pop have been cited more and more by upcoming bands. Even for those with a devout passion for shoegaze, there’s an oversaturation of this kind of music, most probably brought on by the internet making this music accessible to all. But what in particular makes shoegaze such an attractive proposition for the musical youth of today?

Shoegaze is a kind of music that arguably focuses on capturing a kinda dream-your-life-away feeling. Otherworldly serenity and splendour that transports the listener away from the mundanity of their lives. Amol Prabhu, the frontman of East London dream-pop troupe Rain Maze says he’s “always enjoyed listening to music that seems almost surreal, and music that has the ability to make you feel like you’re in a dream or a sort of hazy alternate reality.” This is a sentiment you can only assume the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine share; Ride themselves sang on 1990’s Like A Daydream: “I wish that life could be just like a photograph, one moment captured as you laugh your perfect laugh,” a perfect wide eyed manifesto for musical escapism.

There is, and always was, more to the shoegaze sound than just dreaminess and (arguably) passive, liminal escapism. “The ‘laddish’ (for Britpop) and ‘effeminate’ (for shoegaze) tags are unfortunate,” Lush frontwoman Miki Berenyi tells me. “I mean Pulp were never laddish, were they? And I don’t think of My Bloody Valentine as effeminate.” Whilst MBV do have their share of floating, soft-vocal pop songs, and Pulp did famously sing “grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag”, the appeal of these kinds of music aren’t just a black and white dichotomy. Bands like My Bloody Valentine, as well as Ride and AR Kane did manage to combine the ferocity of rock with the texturally lush.

“[We were] all gonads and spunk and noise and blood and engine coolant and pain and love and heaven and hell,” Rudy Tambala of dream-pop pioneers AR Kane tells me. The band combined a kinda industrial ferocity with a soft sensibility that was unparalleled when their first single dropped in 1986 – they might have been firmly in the realms of dream-pop (“I do dream-pop, it’s never nasty, it’s about love and positivity”), but AR Kane were rabid. Purveyors of noise on the same scale as Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers, but with a desire to reach a higher, more beautiful peak. “We caused a lot of trouble everywhere we went, without really trying,” Tambala recalls: “thing is, we were from another world, a different culture; 2nd generation immigrants with black, working class roots, suddenly in this white, middle-class, artsy scene.” The raucous approach to dream-pop is in a field of its own, with the likes of Deafheaven and Liturgy only now actualising the notion that the intensity of rock music and the ethereality of dream-pop can work in harmony together with both aspects at their most extreme.

Pop music theorist Simon Reynolds says that shoegaze is a kind of music that combines “extremism and beauty”. It’s extreme music that is not ugly, fractured or inhuman; music that pushes the boundaries of what is possible, but does so in a way that is beautiful and melodic. “It’s the combination of rock power and force, but without any machismo – in fact with its opposite, this androgynous gentleness and feyness. The faint voices, the lack of thrust or ego drama – it’s rock with better sexual politics, maybe. It keeps a lot of the power of rock but loses the strutting masculinity and the phallic projection.”

In Reynolds’ book, Retromania, he delves in depth into what damage retro culture can do. “Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward?” he asks. The advent of the Internet has seen countless revivals of psych, krautrock, and just about everything under the sun due to the ease of access. After all; how difficult was it for kids in the seventies to get their mitts on an Amon Duul II twelve inch? And how difficult is it for you at home to search for Phallus De on Spotify?

But with shoegaze, it almost feels different. As if a revival is sweeping the scene because shoegaze was unfairly muscled out, victim to a music press mutiny and a change in cultural attitudes. “Not confident or commercial enough,” reflects Miki Berenyi; “I think it got crushed before it had a chance to burn out. Maybe that’s the key.” Maybe this feeling of unfinished business is perhaps what has thrust the misty eyed astral sounds of Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and AR Kane are crucial reference points for the noiseniks of today. Whilst there is still a lot of shoegazing landfill out there – where bands lose their authenticity or heart because too much is done to stylistically pastiche what has gone before – young bands like Cigarettes After Sex and Acid Ghost, The Horrors and Deafheaven, Rain Maze and Beach House, are decorating the liminal sonic landscape with some of the most beautiful fresh sonic ornamentation to bless the green pastures of human hearing in a very long time.

(Written by Cal Cashin)

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