By: Iyas Daghlas
For a while I’ve been thinking about what makes groups like Whirr/Nothing, Explosions in the Sky, and The Killers sound boring compared to their obvious influences. It seems that groups like these — the modern shoegazers, third-wave crescendocore post-rockers, and post-punk revivalists — take the genre’s superficial features and leave behind the innovative impulse that made the music interesting in the first place.
Shoegaze is unfortunately often conflated with dream-pop. While dream-pop is rooted in aesthetics, shoegaze is rooted in an ideology (this is coming from someone who defines dream-pop as very melodic pop music with its foot glued to the reverb and echo pedals.) Shoegaze’s thesis statement was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which employed the swirling shoegaze guitars to create an enveloping hypnotic experience. Kevin Shields himself says “it wasn’t so much about noise; it was something that eventually put you into a sort of trance state.” Spacemen 3 did this before him, albeit in a much more aggressive and less “pretty” way (the production can fall a bit flat on their studio releases). Shields also describes his desire to create music that doesn’t progress linearly, but is rather impressionistic in nature. Loveless certainly exists somewhere outside the normal flow of time — let your guard down and a single moment on this album threatens to expand into infinity and lull you into a deep sleep (“To Here Knows When” and “What you Want,” in particular). Contrast this with Spacemen 3 who wrote long (20min+) songs that create a trance state almost by force.
An interesting side note: with enough repetition a part of the brain called the Orientation Association Area (OAA) begins to tone down its activity. The OAA normally functions to create a map of the self in relation to the environment. Extended repetition thus blurs the lines between self and not-self, and can create feelings of transcendence and unity with ones surroundings. Repetition is believed to be used to this effect in the traditions of many religions, as elucidated by neurological studies of praying monks and nuns. I have a hunch that this is what gives repetition-heavy music — MBV, krautrock, dance music, drone — their unique qualities.
It seems like a lot of shoegaze bands don’t have a good feel for this. The fact that some groups brag about the loudness of their live show tells you a lot. Their studio releases are forgettable, and quite often seem to simply be loud rock songs loaded with guitar effects… music with a beginning and end that progresses linearly — exactly what Kevin Shields was trying to avoid in Loveless:
“A lot of what the so-called shoegazing bands that came after us were doing was significantly different in mood, intention, and attitude, with just the superficial common elements of noisy guitars, soft vocals, and slightly rhythmic drums.”
In a similar sense, post-rock was initially all about the mood and atmosphere. One of the classics of the genre is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (LYSF). “Static” transports you to a bleak, post-apocalyptic world where the air is thick with haunting drones and you can hear the unsettling sound of distant, empty trains. Suddenly the bleakness passes and the silence is punctuated by the unsettling monologue of a man passionately describing a mystic’s journey to god: “because when you see the face of god you will die and there will be nothing left of you.” These surreal scenes leave more of an emotional impression and gut feeling than they do an easily discernible meaning, much like a Hayao Miyazaki film does.
LYSF and records like Laughing Stock, Do Make Say Think, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and Spiderland are tied together in that each evokes a very strong, palpable atmosphere. Herein lies the problem with the bands that aimed to emulate them (and revival bands in general): they took the genres musical tropes — tremolo guitars, eery vocal samples, use of silence, crescendos — and made them the end, rather than the means to the end. Furthermore there is a “dilution effect” when it comes to these influences. The original post-rock groups were influenced by many interesting musical movements (krautrock, classical, free jazz, musique concrete, etc) and synthesized them in a novel way. The second and third-wave groups fall very short of artistic success (in my book, at least) because their style is an emulation of this synthesis and adds nothing interesting on its own.
The result of this flip-flop has been a bland, disappointing devolution of post-rock into “crescendo-core,” whereby the storytelling and mood are shoved aside in favor of the all-important crescendo. The optimistic swell of a reverbed tremolo-picked guitar, or the slow trodding of a piano playing in a minor key — both seem like the heavy-handed musical equivalents of laugh tracks (“They seemed too see-through//To be true”) They might as well place emojis on the vinyl/CD to let you know how you should be reacting.
This pattern is repeated in the post-punk revival bands. A quick tangent: I sometimes see Interpol written off as Joy Division worship, which I highly disagree with, at least as far as Turn on the Bright Lights is concerned. Joy Division never came close to the dynamics in some of the compositions on this LP (OBSTACLE 1, ROLAND). Heck I’m going to go so far as to say I enjoy the bass lines in this album more than those in Unknown Pleasures… I might go so far as to say that I like TOBL more than Unknown Pleasures. Have I lost all credibility? Maybe.
What was the point of this post? I believe that it’s important to support artists who are doing something new and opening novel avenues of self-expression. In order to determine whether this is true, the influences of an artist must be teased apart from their original contributions. If it weren’t for the innovation of groups like The Mothers of Invention, The Beatles, Beach Boys, King Crimson, The Velvet Underground etc., rock music would have remained in a blues stasis (an exaggeration I know — others would have probably eventually done the same thing but you get my point). Nobody can argue that these groups, and the countless groups they inspired, haven’t created oodles of listening pleasure and experiences for their fans.