VA: Feedback To The Future

In the early '90s, 'shoegazing' dominated the British indie scene. Slowdive and Curve were covered by the music weeklies, Lush was in the top 40, and Ride was a Reading Festival headliner. Emerging before the rise of grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden) and Britpop (Suede, Pulp, Blur, and Oasis), shoegazing's flame burned bright for a year or two at best. In retrospect, this hardly surprises considering the groups' general facelessness and lack of charisma, as well as the introspective character of the music. Slowdive's Neil Halstead explained that, as the musicians were not that proficient, they spent much of the time looking at the floor figuring out which effects pedals to use on a given song, hence the genre label (apparently coined by Melody Maker's Steve Sutherland, although its origin has also been attributed to someone at the NME). While the music was enormously loud, it still managed to sound withdrawn, with infectious, blissful melodies buried beneath eardrum-shredding layers of guitar feedback. Vocal and instrumental sounds sometimes merged, with female voices belonging to Rachel Goswell (Slowdive), Toni Halliday (Curve), and Lush's Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson often featured. Shoegazer bands were influenced heavily by the distorted, swirling guitar sound of My Bloody Valentine and the ethereal qualities of the Cocteau Twins, with The Cure and The Jesus and Mary Chain other key reference points. After My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything appeared in 1988, Creation Records head Alan McGee signed many acts (Ride, Slowdive, The Telescopes, and Swervedriver) during the long wait for the band's 1991 follow-up Loveless , now regarded as one of the genre's defining albums. Predictably, shoegazers succumbed to quintessential rock clichés: eccentric genius overburdened by artistic success (in the tragic tradition of Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett, Kevin Shields suffered a crippling inability to follow up 1991's Loveless), despair (Lush drummer Chris Acland's suicide in 1996 essentially ended the band), chemical excess (if ever a music style arrived tailor-made for ecstasy and hallucinogens, it was this one), and band infighting (Ride's 1994 Carnival of Light had its two songwriters acrimoniously placing their songs on separate sides of the album).

Feedback to the Future thus functions as a fine introduction to the genre by featuring eleven songs from definitive bands like Ride, Slowdive, Lush, Revolver, and Swervedriver. But it's no mere history lesson. Even though the comp's songs are now more than a decade old, their impassioned attack and irrepressible melodic hooks keep them sounding fresh. Revolver's “Heaven Sent an Angel” begins the collection in classic form with its roaring layers of guitars and soaring harmonies carried by Mat Flint's impassioned lead vocal. Moose's “Last Night I Fell Again,” on the other hand, is an infectious, jangly pop song whose swirling guitars provide the shoegazer connection. The Telescopes “All A Dreams” is a textbook exemplar of the shoegazing style: hazy, ethereal vocals coupled with droning, feedback washes of guitars. The gentle melody of Slowdive's “Catch the Breeze” turns anthemic in the chorus with Halstead and Goswell providing a delicate, affecting duet amidst layers of guitars. Other highlights include the melancholy pop of Pale Saints' “ Sea of Sound ,” the druggy Eastern feel of Blind Mr. Jones's “Small Caravan,” the Stooges-influenced “Rave Down” by Swervedriver, and Lush's sweet harmonies on “Deluxe.”

Recall the infamous comment that, of the minuscule number who saw The Velvet Underground in concert or bought their records, every one of them later formed bands of their own? Similarly, many who bought Loveless promptly formed shoegazer bands, although only a few of them are together today (Moose, The Telescopes). The shoegazing sound has lived on, however, first re-emerging in the space rock movement of the late 90s (Spiritualized, The Verve) which shared its precursor's affinity for psychedelic guitar sounds. Today Sigur Ros and Mogwai evoke the era with their own majestic music, while Morr Music artists paid tribute to the genre and Slowdive in particular with 2002's Blue Skied An' Clear. Feedback to the Future thus provides a capsule portrait of a fleeting moment, and a valuable one, too, given that many of the artists' records remain out of print today. However, as good an overview as it is, one wonders why Swallow's Blow (1992) and especially Loveless aren't represented; presumably licensing difficulties account for the latter's puzzling absence. Of course, shoegazing didn't ignite in America the way it did in England. When the focus shifted to 'alternative' music, grunge, and Lollapalooza, the die was cast for the shoegazing movement. As far as youthful despair is concerned, the roar of grunge might have cornered the market but, while it briefly laid the shoegazing sound to rest, it never killed its spirit.

September 2003