Shoegaze

Snapper “Snapper” (Flying Nun, 1988)

 

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Snapper came to my attention with their 1988 debut EP; it was awed love at first hear. This was at a time when anything from New Zealand—Snapper hailed from Dunedin—carried a wonderful mystique, but here was a band that didn’t really sound like the other Flying Nun groups whose records somehow made it to the US. They radiated much more sinister vibes than did bands like the Chills, the the Clean, and the Bats.

The four songs on the Snapper EP are Möbius strips of mantric Kiwi surf rock wreathed in barbed-wire guitars and ornery organs. If you care about meticulous, traditional rock songwriting as blueprinted by the Beatles et al., Snapper will frustrate you. However, if you think the idea of British Stooges acolytes Loop jamming with synth-punk innovators Suicide is smashing, you’ll love Snapper to death.

The EP—which Captured Tracks reissued in 2013—kicks off with its best-known track, “Buddy,” which Wooden Shjips have covered live and on record. The number’s all razor-sharp organ ostinato, cut with stinging shoegaze-rock guitar and metronomic drumming, topped with subliminal female/male vocals by Christine Voice and the late Peter Gutteridge. The chorus goes, “No more buddy buddy/No more messsin’ around/I’m not gonna be your, be your fucking clown.” You’d best believe they mean it. “Cause Of You” is a full-on speed-freak rush down death’s highway. You can totally hear how this paved the way for bands like Stereolab, Moon Duo, and Thee Oh Sees.

“Death And Weirdness In The Surfing Zone” offers relentless waves of organ and guitars riding one lethal chord for the song’s duration while drummer Alan Haig does his best Klaus Dinger impression. Like everything here, it induces a kind of adrenalized hypnosis. The grinding throb of “Hang On” sounds like Suicide transposed to Loop’s psychedelic-rock grandeur, then fed a fistful of leapers. If these descriptions are becoming repetitive, well, it’s because repetition is Snapper’s lifeblood. In order to pull off this sort of monomania, you have to zero in on the most compelling chords and timbres; Snapper do that over and over. If your eyes don’t become two kaleidoscopic pinwheels by the end of “Hang On,” I feel bad for you. Gutteridge’s mantra of “You gotta feel good about doing wrong” could be his band’s motto.

Snapper’s brand of minimalist, one-chord jams that have no beginnings, endings, or many variations would sound dull in most other bands’ hands. Read more›

A.R. Kane “Up Home!” (Rough Trade, 1988)

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Heads still ain’t ready for A.R. Kane. The British duo emerged in 1986 on One Little Indian, sounding like the black Jesus And Mary Chain on their debut single, “When You’re Sad.” Maybe too much. It was a nice homage, but it reflected little of A.R. Kane’s unique personality. That would soon come with 1987’s Lollita EP on 4AD and the Up Home! EP in 1988, followed closely by their debut full-length, 69 and the Love-Sick EP. These records revealed a group commingling dream pop, soul, ambient dub, and electric-era Miles Davis in a wholly distinctive manner. (Major footnote: A.R. Kane also contributed to M/A/R/R/S’s 1987 smash hit “Pump Up The Volume,” which you can still find in bargain bins with some regularity.)

Opener “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the track that became the highlight of 69, slowly arises from slumber into recumbent, refracted dub bliss. It revolves around irradiated guitar grind, cyclical bass pressure, and Rudy Tambala’s tranquilized soul croon. The chorus of “baby, so serene/slow slow slow slow/baby, suck my seed” summarizes the mood of casual, lush eroticism pervading the song. “W.O.G.S.” features lyrics about being sold down and floating down the river, which aptly mirrors the music’s aquatic, solemn dubgaze haze.

“One Way Mirror” is the EP’s zenith, a fractured, shimmering specimen of radiant psychedelic-rock/dub fusion that reifies your disorientation. Tambala sings in surrealistic puzzles, but the line “I’m going up till I lose my skin” sums up the general feeling of self-abnegating transcendence. The record concludes with “Up,” which is some kind of peak of weightless, amorphous rock. It’s about ascending a stairway to heaven on the Black Star Liner (the shipping line that Jamaican politician Marcus Garvey instituted in 1919 to transport goods and people to Africa), and it’s unbearably poignant.

A.R. Kane would go on to record the housier, astral-jazzier, and more accessible “i” double LP and the not-so-great New Clear Child, but Up Home! remains their most concentrated blast of brothers-from-another-planet rock sorcery. You can also find these tracks on the 2012 double-CD compilation Complete Singles Collection. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Felt “Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty” (Cherry Red, 1982)

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While it’s foolhardy to generalize about Felt fans, one thing seems certain: Most consider Ignite The Seven Cannons (i.e., the one with “Primitive Painters” on it) or Forever Breathes The Lonely Word as their best album. I beg to differ. For me, this British band—who issued 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years throughout the ’80s—peaked with The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Stories and this perfectly formed mini LP. I know—shocking, right?

There’s nothing really crumbling on Felt’s debut, but there’s plenty of antiseptic beauty. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise, I mean this in the strongest terms: Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty is utterly sublime, lack of grit be damned.

“Evergreen Dazed” instantly sets a tone of spangly grandeur, courtesy of the rococo guitar leads by the classically trained Maurice Deebank. An instrumental that plucks heartstrings in the key of gee whiz, “Evergreen Dazed” exudes a most brilliant crystalline poignancy. On “Fortune,” frontman Lawrence’s voice sounds like a perfect merger of Bob Dylan’s sneer and Lou Reed’s sardonic deadpan, while the music saunters and glints with casual elegance. This isn’t rock as most know it, but rather some English back-garden reverie or a drawing-room samba. One imagines Lawrence, at this early stage of Felt, wrinkling his nose at the vulgarity of most rock. The swooning continues on “Birdmen,” whose languid psychedelia gyres around a glacially chiming, hypnotic guitar pattern.

“Cathedral,” which has been one of my favorite songs for over 30 years, is absolutely worthy of the title. The intro’s a majestic brandishing of silvery guitars, and then Lawrence and co. swoosh in with those intimate-yet-distant vocals and a gently undulating unrock attack, marked by Deebank’s jangly guitar shimmer. The last half of the song contains some of the greatest spidery guitar calligraphy this side of a Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd duel. The Deebank-written “I Worship The Sun” is Crumbling‘s most propulsive tune; it actually builds up a rocking head of steam. As with all of the other tracks, though, drummer Gary Ainge only seems to use the toms, because as Lou Reed sagely noted, cymbals eat guitars. Still, it’s odd not to hear any kicks or snares over an entire album.

“Templeroy, another Deebank piece, ends the record on a somewhat anticlimactic note. This one meanders a bit too close to the Earth compared to the preceding five songs. Plus, Lawrence … Read more›

My Bloody Valentine “Tremolo” (Creation/Sire, 1991)

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This four-track EP was like a coming attraction for the monumental, instant-classic LP that came out a bit later in 1991, Loveless. Although it’s generally overlooked in comparison to its successor, Tremolo actually contains some of My Bloody Valentine’s greatest compositions.

“To Here Knows When,” of course, appeared on Loveless, but it’s a bizarre choice for a single. Then again, that’s how crazy-like-a-fox Alan McGee operated Creation back in those halcyon daze. The man did not subscribe to conventional wisdom—at all. “To Here Knows When” blooms like a flower on Pluto, or plumes like an exploded New Age composition whose hazy amorphousness is shot through with Bilinda Butcher’s luscious coos. This could be the theme song for every baby in every womb—all atremble with wonder, but burbling with an undercurrent of foreboding at the horrors to come once the umbilical’s snipped. “Swallow” may be the most beatific song in MBV’s blessed canon—which is saying a helluva lot. But seriously… I dare you to find a more opiated, erotic piece of exotica than this Butcher-sung tune. MBV mastermind Kevin Shields really hit on a sensual, peaceful groove here. I could use at least 30 minutes of it, to be honest.

By contrast, “Honey Power” is about as straight-ahead of an uptempo rocker as MBV wrote in this era. Still, it contains plenty of those urgent, tremolo-laden guitar torrents, as Shields and Butcher unleash lavender flames of quasi-kazoo-like timbres. As with the preceding two tracks, “Honey Power” features a coda that adds a wonderfully disorienting aura to the record. (If I were more of a contrarian, I’d say these concluding tangents were the best parts of Tremolo.) The closing “Moon Song” swirls in an almost old-fashioned mode of romantic balladry, although the honeyed drones and muted bongos beneath Shields’ sincere singing nudge the song away from sentimentality.

In 1991, MBV could do no wrong. Tremolo‘s phantasmagorical whirl of astral ambient rock found them pulling way ahead of the pack… and it wasn’t even their peak release from that year. (By the way, we really could use a vinyl reissue of this EP.) -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Teenage Filmstars “Star” (Creation, 1992)

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When people talk about the all-time classic shoegaze-rock albums, they often forget about this one. Big mistake. I mean, Star came out on England’s Creation Records, Shoegaze Central, in 19bloody92. It’s hard to get better positioning than that. Plus, it had a fab cover and it was made by Creation boss Alan McGee’s tightest bro from way back when: Ed Ball.

So why has Star virtually vanished into the ether? Why has a work that this writer and a few other friends rank up there with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Isn’t Anything and Ride’s Nowhere eluded the consciousness of the underground-rock cognoscenti? (That shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise didn’t devote a dang minute to Teenage Filmstars.) One theory: Fellow Creationists My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive—and Lush—siphoned so much attention from the music press that they eclipsed almost everyone else. Well, it’s time to atone for mistakes and get familiar with Teenage Filmstars’ fantastic debut full-length. (Props to the infinitesimal minority who already know it by heart.)

From the first seconds of opening song “Kiss Me,” you realize you’re immersed in a special record. Teenage Filmstars fling you into a super-saturated glam-rock alternate universe in which Electric Warrior-era T.Rex is remixed by Kevin Shields. The main riff’s repeated ad nauseam, like an OCD come-on to which you succumb over and over (and over). First song and you’re already spent, but you soldier on because you sense even greater pleasures await you. “Loving” is an idealized simulacrum of Loveless‘ unbearably sensuous, cooing vocals, throbbing guitar miasma, and subliminally thrusting rhythms. It’s a potent aphrodisiac. “Inner Space” out-ethereals those interstitial bits on Loveless and makes Cocteau Twins sound like the Cult. To paraphrase the Jimi Hendrix Experience, it’s got me floating.

“Apple” is a heavenly flange swirl that, if you could condense it into a pill, would erase the world’s pain in four minutes. The gorgeous lysergic reverie “Flashes” boasts the same skittering, funky drums as the intro to MBV’s “Soon,” hilariously rubbing your nose in the Loveless association. The endlessly revving and twittering instrumental “Vibrations” is what I imagine LSD guru Timothy Leary heard as he shuffled off this mortal coil. It always reduces me to acidic tears. The title of “Hallucinations” is a bit too on the nose, but its Möbius-strip synth exhalations and astral turbulence give you what it promises. This cut comes at the part of … Read more›