Shoegaze, dreampop, neo-psychedelia. Many masks covering the same face but still the same tripped-out and sublime undercurrent to a slew of bands lasting from the 80s to the present day. The soundscapes can be overwhelmingly vast or extremely light and subtle. White noise or ethereal pop-on-opium melodies. Bands like the Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and the Cocteau Twins led the pack from the mid-80s till the mid-to-late 90s. They further ushered in a wave of bands heavily informed by the sounds and sensibilities of this movement and this legacy is seeing a resurgence today.
The “Shoegaze” label itself funnily enough began as a dig at the burgeoning scene. With music journalist Andy Ross observing that these new groups were always seen to stare directly at their shoes for the duration of their gigs. This was probably due more to the liberal use of foot-bound effects pedals by the genre to help create the notable otherworldly sound, rather than defiance against pretentious onstage flailing common in the 80s (such as Emperor Fuckwit himself, “Bono Vox”). Nevertheless, they were held in contempt by many at the time. Having come after the heyday of Post-Punk, before the alternative became mainstream and in the midst of woefully watered-down synth pop, they were seen as decadent, self-important and inaccessible.
There is a reason these bands were collectively known as “the scene that celebrates itself.” Although it has absolutely nothing to do with insular nonchalance, more so that they would all regularly hit up each others gigs and support one another. These are and were, musicians-musicians. The influences on the Shoegaze movement are hugely varied. They melded minimalist composers such as La Monte Young, 60s fuzz-laden garage (The Sonics, 13th Floor Elevators, The Count Five). The pop sensibilities and “Wall of Sound” (The use of echo, reverb, etc) innovations of The Beach Boys and Phil Spector were a particular sonic influence. The psychedelic rock of Love, the space rock of Hawkwind, a smattering of Post-punk and even took notes from the slowly emerging alternative rock scene (Sonic Youth being an obvious influence). However, both stylistically and much more so musically, they took their main cues in barrage of calculated noise, dark shades, static gloomy menace and even sometimes beautifully simple melodies of the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Velvet Underground.
However, these sensibilities are also fused with a fine-tuned psychic understanding of lighter melodies, somewhere between a deranged classical composition composed by an acid casualty and a hymn composed by the most sensitive garage band in existence. To simply reference the “Wall of Sound” whether in reference to the arrangements of Brian Wilson/Phil Spector, or all out “White Noise” nodding in the direction of the Jesus & Mary Chain, does the music a disservice. Despite their influences on Shoegaze/Dreampop and the Psych revival, there is a lot more subtlety to this genre. One only has to look at ANY of the Cocteau Twins’ consistently stellar work to realize this fact. Elizabeth Fraser is anything but gloomy, even when the usually dream-like music is carried along by a slightly sombre tone. Her vocals are famous as much for her fantastic range, emotion and ability as for the completely goddamn gibberish lyrics (also, check out her once-off duet with the late Jeff Buckley for yer own sake). Likewise goes for Slowdive, with the typically laconic vocals that define the genre but with noted absences of the genre-defining background haze and a great clarity in a lot of their arrangements.
Of course, no dive in to the murky waters of the Downward-Gazers would be complete without the homegrown My Bloody Valentine. They epitomize the light-dark dichotomy in the music, it is fair to say, more than any. The all-encompassing opiate wave that the music channels. Loveless, just as famous for its notoriously difficult 2 year creation, is perhaps one of the top defining albums of the genre and showcases Kevin Shields and co. maturing massively as musicians. The tremolo-laden effects and breathy vocals blend into the perfect nocturnal city music. You get what I mean. Intoxication and city lights and that.
The reverberations are still being very much felt today through everyone from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, to more recently bands such as M83 and Deer Hunter. Thankfully it seems to be experiencing something of revival, with so-called “nu-gaze” bands not simply pastiching and raiding the vault of yesteryear as many are want to do in even more gaudy attempts at “revivals.” They are sincerely building on the legacy of a wildly unique and powerful genre and making it their own. Long may the Shoegazers gaze.