Shoegaze gains a new shine

British band Slowdive comprise (from left) Christian Savill, Neil Halstead, Nick Chaplin, Rachel Goswell and Simon Scott.
British band Slowdive comprise (from left) Christian Savill, Neil Halstead, Nick Chaplin, Rachel Goswell and Simon Scott.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The genre, named for its musicians' tendency to stare down at their effects pedals, is enjoying a revival

NEW YORK • Look down (not up), the thrill of shoegaze has surfaced again.

In May, British band Slowdive, a pioneer in the shoegaze genre, played a pair of shows at Brooklyn Steel in New York City.

Two months later, a wash of more muscular fuzz filled Manhattan club Terminal 5 as Ride took the stage.

Both bands formed in England in the late 1980s, achieved critical acclaim in the 1990s, reunited in 2014 and released new albums in the past few months that have reverberated on both sides of the Atlantic.

As with many reboots of acts from the 1990s, attention from radio or streaming services is not a concern. Many fans have matured into adults with expendable incomes enough to sustain a live-music nostalgia industry.

Shoegaze - named for its players' tendency to stare down at complex warrens of effects pedals - was born out of a young British population so numbed by successive Conservative governments that it turned to sonic immolation.

But across the ocean, America became seized by grunge's fuzzed- out rage. When that sound bounced back to Britain, one logical progression was shoegaze - heavenly clouds of distortion under soft, androgynous vocals.

Those effects pedals became crucial. From those new circuits sprang the sounds of resignation.

But with technology comes glitches.

On the first night of their stint at Brooklyn Steel in May, Slowdive were stymied by digital gremlins.

The show was interrupted when Neil Halstead, one of the band's guitarists and singers, had trouble with one of his dozens of pedals.

"I know we're shoegazers, but literally everyone on stage was staring at my pedals, trying to figure out why they kept going on and off," he said with a laugh backstage the next day.

The new self-titled album by Slowdive, which regrouped three years ago after nearly two decades of inactivity, updates their ethereal, dream-like sound, sharpening the tone established on early records such as Souvlaki (1993).

At the time, that aesthetic was brighter and crisper than the sound of Irish band My Bloody Valentine, perhaps the most prominent name in shoegaze, which combined pummelling rhythms, searing walls of distortion and obsessive studio trickery.

Over the past few decades, bands such as Beach House, M83 and Hum expanded on 1990s British musical templates and made them popular to new listeners - or simply kept doing what works.

"Anything of any merit or nutritional value in the past will get its return," said Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past.

To him, the sociopolitical climate in Britain had created a sense of defeat among young people who were coming of age just as bands such as Slowdive, Ride and Swervedriver were forming.

"By the time John Major left power, which was 1997, it had been something like 16 or maybe 17 years of Conservative rule," Reynolds said, referring to the former prime minister.

He identified two scenes that appealed to the young and idealistic: shoegaze "for your sort of guitar- loving, middle-class students" and rave culture, which was "druggie, working-class, also kind of an escape in a way".

Halstead said that when Slowdive were crafting the sound they became known for, the band had no political leanings.

The groups that had influenced them, he said, were occupied with creation, not reaction.

"All those bands were really interested in just trying to make different noises with guitars," Halstead said.

"And at least for us, there was no real pressure to make records that would be played on the radio."

Unfortunately, technical difficulties returned at the band's second show at Brooklyn Steel.

As they rolled out Slomo, the opening track from the new album, it became clear that the house speakers were not working, meaning the iridescent groove sounded faint to the crowd, as if there was a band rehearsing somewhere nearby.

Given the location in Brooklyn, there probably was, updating another sound from another decade.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2017, with the headline 'Shoegaze gains a new shine'. Print Edition | Subscribe