Rough Guide to Shoegaze

Bonnie Dowler

Are you bored with your music taste? Looking to spice up your daily listening but have no idea where to start? Allow me to introduce shoegaze: the genre of alternative rock you did not know you needed in your Spotify library until now.

The subgenre began with the 1984 album ‘Treasure’ by the Cocteau Twins – a masterful display of hypnotic guitar distortion and celestial vocals which met with commercial success. This inspired a handful of bands in London’s Thames Valley area and a scene developed, comprised of emerging bands at the forefront of experimentation. It became known as ‘the scene that celebrates itself’ because it was so tight knit – swapping band members and attending each other’s shows.

The term ‘shoegaze’ originates from an NME review of the band Moose, as a journalist described the vocalist performing with his head down, seemingly disengaged from the crowd and his role as a performer. This ‘disengagement’ was actually concentration on the distortion pedals vital to the experimental nature of the genre, in which the soundscape is constantly shifting and requires close attention. This attempt to disparage the band’s performance ironically birthed the neologism necessary to define a new subgenre: shoegaze. But don’t let this fool you into assuming that the bands emerging from it were just second-rate copies of the Cocteau Twins. The best of them – such as Lush, Ride, Adorable, Slowdive, Chapterhouse and Moose – have all developed idiosyncratic techniques and sounds, making each worth a listen in their own right.

Most – if not all – shoegaze fans would agree the subgenre reached its culmination in the 1991 album ‘Loveless,’ by My Bloody Valentine. The album both embodied what shoegaze was and defined how it should always be. NME journalist Dele Fadele wrote that the album “fire[d] a silver coated bullet into the future, daring all-comers to try to recreate it’s mixtures of moods, feelings, styles, and yes, innovations.” The influence that ‘Loveless’ had on the development of alternative rock cannot be understated. In other words: it is amazing. Unfortunately, the band has taken their music off Spotify but the entire album is on YouTube! Post ‘Loveless’, the momentum behind overwhelmingly loud guitar and experimental distortion began to tail off and it fell behind the perkier, more marketable Britpop – leading to many of shoegaze’s pioneers disbanding or ‘moving on’ to solo projects that were never quite the same. Nevertheless, the genre dominated the British rock scene in the late 80s and early 90s and is having a revival today in the form of Nu-gaze bands such as Ringo Deathstarr, Airiel, Fleeting Joys, Rumskib and Diiv, to name just a few.

The sound which ties these bands together is difficult to pinpoint. However, I would say that the genre is characterised by ethereal, other-worldly vocals and droning guitar riffs which come together to create immersive walls of sound. Guitars are heavily distorted through effects such a reverb, delay and feedback, and using techniques such as looping and the use of synthesisers. Having said that, this subgenre is highly experimental so any number of effects can be employed to create fresh, exciting sounds. The most important and distinctive feature is the physicality of the music; it has moods and textures that can fluctuate. This creates an amorphous sound which appeals to other senses such as touch: the music seems tangible – dense yet at the same time light and airy. Or sight: the music may evoke visuals of swirling colours. This description may seem abstract but once you listen to ‘Loveless’ it will fall into place. To help you get your feet wet, I have complied a top 10 albums list. It is more personal opinion than anything else, so if you are a fellow shoegaze fan feel free to disagree! And if listening to albums seems daunting, I have chucked the best two songs from each album into the playlist above. Enjoy!

Top 10 Shoegaze Albums

  1. Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (1991)

  2. Souvlaki – Slowdive (1993)

  3. Pure Mood – Ringo Deathstarr (2015)

  4. Heaven and Las Vegas- Cocteau Twins (1990)

  5. Exploding Head – A Place to Bury Strangers (2009)

  6. Nowhere – Ride (1990)

  7. Citrus – Asobi Seksu (2007)

  8. Blonder Tongue Audio Baton – Swirlies (1993)

  9. Despondent Transponder – Fleeting Joys (2006)

  10. Rumskib – Rumskib (2007)

If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: helicon.magazine@gmail.com. The collection will be put together and published in a print zine by the end of the academic year.