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#WYNTK: Shoegaze

The sonic cathedrals of the indie rock subgenre

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Published: 29 Oct 2021


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Shoegaze is a tough name to understand at first glance, but it is one we see often in alternative music.

Plenty of genre names offer an idea of its music. Indie rock can denote a specific creative attitude—or a guitar riff that sets hearts aflutter—while psychedelic rock brings to mind vivid colours and a period-specific style. Heavy metal? Well, it speaks for itself.

Shoegaze is a subgenre that has had a shorter life compared to these genres, having come to fruition in the late-1980s. But it also has had plenty of impact around the world, such that it isn’t uncommon to find teenagers and 50-year-olds alike speak of its bands, including My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, with hushed reverence.

You can find plenty of music tagged as shoegaze on Bandcamp and Spotify that may sound similar, but as a genre, shoegaze has evolved in different directions thanks to the ambitions of countless artists. By not being a constrained style in name, you can find shoegaze in several corners of modern music. You can find it in indie rock, hip-hop, black metal, pop. You can even find it in film discussions that mention “shoegaze cinema”.

It’s loud, it’s dreamy, it’s noisy. It’s shoegaze. But where did it come from?

The origins of “shoegaze”

If you had told me in 1991 that, 25 years later, I would be prefacing a list on shoegaze, I would probably have told you it would never happen.

Pete Kember, The 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time, Pitchfork, 2016.

English musician Pete Kember once wrote a short essay about shoegaze for Pitchfork on their list of 50 best shoegaze albums of all time.

“If you had told me in 1991 that, 25 years later, I would be prefacing a list on shoegaze, I would probably have told you it would never happen,” he admitted. “Few of these bands paid even the slightest, fleeting lip service to commerciality. I couldn’t see it.”

This hints at the mystique that the word “shoegaze” still radiates. Like most alternative music, it began underground. In the mid-1980s, music journalists began noting a crop of emerging rock bands in the UK who started using volume as a weapon and guitar riffs for texture, rather than propulsive melody.

Live shows were often loud, even deafening, but it was the stage presence of these bands that gave the subgenre its name. Musicians, whether it was due to intense shyness or indifference, looked downward, keeping their eyes on the guitar pedals that gave their music life. Vocals were buried in the sound mix. Lyrics centered on inner turmoil: an introvert’s paradise. Every song is like a whisper seemingly amplified by raw emotion rather than bombast.

It was not the kind of music to generate mass appeal. Still, it was seen as a new take on other rock traditions—let alone dream pop, another curious (but lighter) genre fusion that caught on around the same time—so it opened the eyes and ears for those keen enough to embrace the noise.

Bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 (which Kember was part of) embodied these aspects during that decade, and are often called the precursors of shoegaze. A full movement of shoegaze would not come in full force until a certain band named My Bloody Valentine started to catch on.

An indie music phenomenon

If there’s one band to listen to, in order to understand the essentials of shoegaze, it’s My Bloody Valentine. But to stop there would be a disservice (or, maybe, an act of mercy, depending on your volume tolerance) to your eardrums.

Having been active in the 1980s, My Bloody Valentine entered a new decade with Loveless, unleashed to fans in 1991. It’s an album still beloved to this day—2021 was a year that saw the band re-emerge to reissue their discography and hint at possible new music—but at the time, shoegaze was a fairly contentious (if informal) movement of bands.

 

The genre name had been used in the 1990s to describe British bands who had begun to dish out paralyzing volume and dreamy atmospherics in equal measure. Some were in love with it. Others berated it.

My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Chapterhouse, Lush, Swervedriver, among others, were often lumped together for their similarities. None of these bands confessed to being “shoegaze”, but the term stuck. Thus, the genre fully came into form. 

The influence was immediate. The indie rock scenes of the US had already taken notice of these mesmerising sounds. Bands such as Drop Nineteens, Starflyer 59 and Quicksand caught on and began churning out their own walls of sound, with the latter finding space for shoegaze guitars with their post-hardcore ethos.

Smashing Pumpkins, emerging rock stars at the time, catapulted to the Billboard Top 10 with 1993’s Siamese Dream. It’s an album laced with colossal guitar tones by mixing engineer Alan Moulder, who was roped in after the band heard his work on Loveless.

However, shoegaze as an initial music phenomenon was brief. The commercial performance of these bands had begun to wane.

The bands that had emerged under its spotlight either shied away to different sounds—Britpop, hard rock, post-rock—or retreated to obscurity (My Bloody Valentine would become inactive for over a decade after 1995). Instead of being relegated to dated music magazines, this would only mark the first “death” of shoegaze before its rebirth in the new millennium.

The re-emergence of shoegaze

Many narratives would paint the re-emergence of shoegaze as somewhere within the late-2000s. The truth is that, even with its commercial decline in the mid-1990s, shoegaze never died. It just took on many, many forms.

The 2000s were an interesting time to be a fan of shoegaze because it also tested the limits of your listening habits. Bands had begun to spring up in disparate scenes around the world, never shamelessly parading themselves as a strictly “shoegaze band” but copiously learning from its forebears.

The US indie rock scene of that decade had welcomed the likes of Blonde Redhead, Deerhunter and Asobi Seksu, all of whom saw the characteristics of shoegaze music as something to be explored and employed effectively in songwriting. But this is just scratching the surface.

Synth-pop project M83 and ambient artist Ulrich Schnauss had fused shoegaze aesthetics with their distinct brands of dreamy electronic music. Sweet Trip found a common denominator in shoegaze with IDM (intelligent dance music) and chiptune. Alternative metal band Deftones employed thick, impenetrable guitars in their music beginning in 2000’s White Pony. Similarly, other metal bands like Alcest and Jesu tamed the treble in favour of overwhelming sonics.

The list goes on and onthe 2010s alone are a goldminebut a bigger picture was being painted: shoegaze existed not just as a fixed subgenre, but as a nebulous style that artists could be inspired by. 

The Asian scene

Meanwhile, in Asia, indie rock bands have continually drawn from its well through the decades. Japan has seen legions of bands either in full service to its sound or innovating their own path. Boris, an influential metal band in their own right, solidified their shoegaze sonics in 2005’s Pink.

Any Japanese indie rock nerd would happily supply you with a seemingly endless selection of bands: Coaltar of the Deepers, Kinoko Teikoku, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, My Dead Girlfriend. It’s a lot—there was even a shoegaze idol group named Dots at one point—and a wondrous experience to explore on its own.

In Singapore, shoegaze arguably first emanated in its own formative rock scene with The Pagans, who released their sole album Stereokineticspiraldreams in 1993 and have since remained mysteriously inactive. While there haven’t been many on this side of the world, the 2000s saw the arrival of two bands, Astreal and Stellarium, whose albums embraced reverb and catharsis.


For the modern acts in the region carrying its torch—some of whom will be making the relay at Baybeats 2021—here’s who you need to know.

Cosmic Child

After a brief hiatus, we’re truly lucky that Cosmic Child are returning to the live stage this year. They’re the only shoegaze band who have a song you can use to describe one of the best things we’ve been blessed with: Cats, Cats, and Cats Again.

Lucid Express

Previously known as Thud, Lucid Express roared back with a new album a few months ago—providing solace in a year that sorely needed it. Along with plenty of shiny, imaginative synths.

Parannoul

South Korea’s Parannoul may still carry an air of mystery—all we know is that it’s a one-man project who records in his bedroom—but his songs are immediate and captivating.  

Soft

Arguably one of Southeast Asia’s best kept secrets in this realm, Malaysia’s Soft have not been terribly prolific. But head to their Bandcamp page and find heavy sonic bliss. 

Telever

Shoegaze as an ethereal sound is something you can find in many records. Thai band Telever, on the other hand, dials back the wistfulness for something darker and catchier.

Contributed by:

Daniel Peters

Daniel Peters is a freelance journalist in Singapore. Currently a contributor at NME Asia and radio DJ at Mediacorp’s Indiego, he is formerly from Singapore Community Radio, Bandwagon Asia and MTV Asia.


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