The Sine That Celebrates Itself: On Electronic Shoegaze
, January 16th, 2017 14:27
Ben Cardew revisits the fertile but short-lived shoegaze/electronic music crossover that gave us Seefeel and (eventually) M83 and Ulrich Schnauss
Seefeel photograph courtesy Light In The Attic
Familiarity and admiration, as French author George Sand once explained, are strangers. And rarely has this adage proved more sadly applicable in the musical sphere than in the crossover between shoegazing and electronic music, a brief and brilliant musical flowering in the early 1990s that seemed to run out of fuel before it really got started, floundering on the seas of overfamiliarity and contempt.
This is a genre whose crowning glory - Global Communication’s Pentamerous Metamorphosis, an album-length remix of Chapterhouse’s Blood Music - was released as a free bonus CD; whose best known moment, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, was an abject critical failure, and whose leading light, Seefeel, managed to influence pretty much no one for a good ten years, even as they offered an intriguing new path for shoegazing to free itself from the morass of guitars and mumbles in which it had found itself by 1993.
Looking back now, such indifference seems a travesty. And yet it actually made an odd kind of sense in the musical environment of early 90s Britain where shoegazing electronica emerged. Blood Music, Souvlaki and Seefeel’s Quique were all released in 1993, when shoegazing was on a steep critical decline and Suede were king. Peak rave may have passed by then but it had left an all-encompassing ether of electronic music hanging over Britain that permeated rock’s very bones. The Madchester bands were probably the first to publicly embrace dance remixes, samples and repetitive beats but it was Primal Scream’s majestic Screamadelica, released in 1991, that showed how rock music and dance could combine in this period to create something that was far more potent that the sum of their parts.
The shoegaze bands, for all they borrowed from 60s psychedelia and 80s guitar fuzz, were far from immune from these electronic charms. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields had experimented with sampled beats as far back as 1988 on ‘Instrumental No. 2’, a song given away on seven inch with initial copies of Isn’t Anything that was based on a sample of Public Enemy’s ‘Security Of The First World’. ‘Soon’, released two years later on the Glider EP, would build on this stew, thanks to a brilliant Andrew Weatherall remix that sampled rom WestBam’s ‘Alarm Clock’ cementing the band’s unlikely dance floor appeal. That same year Chapterhouse used the Ashley's Roachclip break on ‘Falling Down’, the lead track from their debut EP Freefall, while even notable Scottish grumps the Jesus and Mary Chain used a suspiciously danceable drum track on 1992’s ‘Reverence’.
It is one of those perverse quirks of fate, then, that by the time Blood Music was released in October 1993, incorporating a dance element into your music had become a well-worn cliché for rock bands in Britain. Worse, with shoegaze’s critical reputation on the skids, Chapterhouse’s doubtlessly well-intentioned decision to ask rising production duo Global Communication to remix their second album was seen as a cynical move to up their credibility and sell some more records, rather than a moment of genuine musical love.
That Pentamerous Metamorphosis was largely ignored at the time seems understandable on those grounds. But that doesn’t make it any less unfair. There was, it is true, a tendency for dance remixers in the early 90s to take the piss when faced with credibility-seeking rock bands, a trend best exemplified by the celebrated tale of Aphex Twin’s 1993 commission to remix The Lemonheads, when he allegedly forgot all about the task in question and instead palmed the band’s record company off with whatever DAT he had to hand. But Chapterhouse were far from blind followers of fashion: not only did ‘Falling Down’ prove they had an existing interest in dance music techniques, but the gliding guitar music on Blood Music also proved fertile territory for Global Communication to explore, on what would prove one of the duo’s very finest bits of music, equal, even to their legendary ambient work 76:14, released the following year.
Pentamerous Metamorphosis is anything but a straight, track-by-track remix album. It contains five, 10-minute-plus tracks, to the 12 songs on Blood Music and all the Pentamerous mixes sport different names to the original tracks. But, rather than an Lemonheads-style whitewash, traces of Chapterhouse’s music can be heard throughout Pentamerous Metamorphosis. ‘Delta Phase’, for example, uses an identifiable guitar lift from Blood Music’s ‘We Are The Beautiful’, while closing track ‘Epsilon Phase’ uses vocal snippets from ‘Love Forever’. This track, in fact, shows the care and attention that Global Communication brought to the task, with the three original vocal lines - 'You Have To Learn To Feel', 'And Reach Into The Light' and 'I'm Changing All The Time' - taken from different parts of the original song and placed together in a brilliant act of juxtaposition.
“One day we got a call from Andy Sheriff from Chapterhouse who loved our work, and asked if we wanted to remix their entire album,” Global Communication’s Tom Middleton explained in the liner notes to the 76:14 album reissue. “What an amazing opportunity. Sampling from the multi-track tapes, embellishing the themes and distilling the lyrical content from Blood Music into five new pieces.”
What Pentamerous Metamorphosis, which was itself re-released in 1998, would demonstrate was how exceptionally well the key elements of shoegaze - dreamy guitar swirl, floaty vocals and an almost pained attention to atmospherics - lent themselves to the more cerebral side of electronic music that was in vogue in the UK at the time (think Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series).
Of all the leading shoegaze groups, these core elements were most evident in the work of Slowdive, a band who exemplified the genre’s much derided search for beauty among the pre-Millennial remains of guitar rock. It is no surprise, then, that Slowdive were responsible for two of the key works in the crossover between shoegazing and electronic music: their own Souvlaki LP, now widely renowned as a classic, and the still largely overlooked 5 EP, which was released in November 1993.
The influence on Souvlaki of electronic music, dub and Brian Eno (who worked on the album) are plain to hear, especially on a track like ‘Souvlaki Space Station’, which seems to drift off into the astronomical ether. “I was really starting to get into stuff like Aphex Twin and get more interested in dub music and early drum and bass kind of stuff,” guitarist and songwriter Neil Halstead told Pitchfork in a 2015 documentary on the making of Souvlaki. Drummer Simon Scott added, “He [Neil] was pushing it in that direction, the Eno collaboration that had inspired us so we though ‘Let’s really space it out’.”
The emphasis on space would become even clearer on the band’s next LP, Pygmalion, an album so sparse it barely exists at times, albeit in a frequently fantastic way. Halstead later told Wondering Sound that Pygmalion was “an organic shift toward loop-based music - we were tired of songs and I was listening to Steve Reich, Aphex Twin and LFO”. It was released in February 1995 to general indifference and the band were dropped by Creation one week later, signalling the end of Slowdive Mark one.
Before Pygmalion, however, came 5, a release that marked the closest Slowdive themselves ever got to straight electronics. Three of the four tracks on 5 - ‘In Mind’, ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Missing You’ - consist largely of synth washes and echoing drum machines, with Rachel Goswell adding ghostly vocals on ‘In Mind’.
Even better is the accompanying remix EP, not the least because it again features the work of Global Communication, this time under their Reload moniker, as well as UK techno act Bandulu, both of whom remix ‘In Mind.’ The Bandulu take on the song is interesting, adding skittery electro beats and sub bass to the original, but Reload’s 147 Take is something else, 10 minutes of ambient perfection that tops even Pentamerous Metamorphosis for star-gazing musical beauty, thanks to the celestial combination of Goswell’s vocal and Global Communication’s beatific production skills, all twinkling synths and scuba dive drums. The two constituent parts sound made for each other, the kind of flash-in-the-bottle musical alchemy that makes you wish Slowdive could have worked with Global Communication again, rather than retreat into the more barren space of Pygmalion.
A similar regret hangs over the fate of Seefeel, possibly the most fully realised example of the electronic / shoegaze crossover, a band who bridged the worlds between guitar label Too Pure, the electronic elegance of Warp and the expanded Aphex Twin universe of Rephlex, for whom they recorded their first, second and third albums respectively. It’s not that the band themselves disappointed - far from it, with their debut album Quique in particular growing into its reputation as a modern classic - but it seems a shame that few bands came in their immediate wake, picking up the immaculately tailored baton they had left behind.
Seefeel emerged in autumn 1993 with a flurry of releases that immediately caught the public ear, not the least that of Aphex Twin, who subsequently remixed ‘Time To Find Me’ from their More Like Space EP, a mix that is notable for Richard D. James being largely respectful to his source material. Aphex apparently told Lime Lizard magazine that he thought he would find it difficult to remix the track “because I really, really like their stuff as it is and what I'm going to do is just add a groove to it”.
You can almost hear James’ surprise here at falling for what is, in its essence, a guitar band, home to two guitarists (one of whom also contributes vocals), a bass player and a drummer. But Seefeel’s sound is far from that of a traditional guitar act, where chords and vocal melodies interplay to create melodies you can hum in the bath. Instead, they use their guitars to create morphing curtains of sound, under which the drum and bass lock into motorik grooves that could just as easily be the work of man or machine. Vocals, meanwhile, are rare, wordless and submerged in the mix, just another element of sonic texture to throw into play.
The line from the shifting drone rock of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Soon’ to Seefeel’s ambient textures is clear. But whereas ‘Soon’ features a melody you could just about pick out on an acoustic guitar, Seefeel’s music seems to have severed all its links to the folk origins of modern song. It was, as many reviews pointed out at the time, the perfect intersection between My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin and as such it offered a way for shoegazing to emerge from the guitar-y quagmire into which it had descended as 1993 turned into 1994.
So why did no one follow their lead? Seefeel weren’t quite the only band incorporating electronics into an experimental rock sound in the early 1990s: Disco Inferno, a band inspired by Young Gods, Public Enemy and My Bloody Valentine, made extensive use of sampling, as did the likes of Laika and Earwig, and we’ve already talked about Souvlaki. Other musicians - such as Matt Elliott (The Third Eye Foundation) or Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis / Boymerang) - moved from experimental rock music to electronics. But these were very much fringe concerns and if you listen to the latter years of Still In A Dream, Cherry Red’s immaculate recorded history of shoegaze, you find Seefeel’s brilliant ‘Plainsong’ surrounded by the fun, if underwhelming, shoegaze-by-numbers of Alison’s Halo and Astrobrite, while the UK charts of the time were starting to fill with Britpop.
Maybe it was just that this kind of music was really hard to make, requiring the mastery of electronics, samplers, studios and guitars. Maybe the critical panning metered out to Souvlaki - an album deemed worse than drowning in a bath of porridge - put people off. Maybe the shoegaze bands didn’t want to be seen as bandwagon jumpers. Or maybe shoegaze had simply run its course in the UK, while US guitar acts were less exposed to electronic music. Whatever the case, the fact that Seefeel inspired next to no one in the mid 90s feels like a huge missed opportunity.
Except, of course, the story doesn’t end there. Rather, it paused: Blood Music was the last album of new material from Chapterhouse; Slowdive morphed in country rockers Mojave 3; and Seefeel went on hiatus in 1996. Global Communication, meanwhile, evolved in several different directions, from deep house (‘The Way’) to drum & bass (as The Chameleon). For many years, shoegaze was the musical genre that dared not speak its name, an embarrassment best forgotten among the jubilance of Britpop and stadium dance.
And then in 2002, something rather unexpected happened: fashionable Berlin electronic music label Morr Music, home to the likes of Lali Puna and the Notwist, released Blue Skied An' Clear, an album in which acts like Ulrich Schnauss, ISAN and Múm paid tribute to Slowdive over one CD of covers and one of tracks inspired by the Slowdive sound. It wasn’t quite the first release to pay tribute to shoegazing since the genre sputtered to a halt - The Radio Dept. had emerged at the turn of the millennium with their carbon copy sound - but this was something far more significant. Morr Music was fashionable, for a start, one of the darlings of the experimental electronic world, and it had managed to round up 17 of its label stars to pay tribute to a band that was still years from its later critical reappraisal.
Then there was the music on Blue Skied An' Clear: guitars, bass players and drummers were out, replaced by laptops, synths and electronic production nous. It was as if the seeds planted a decade before by Souvlaki and Pentamerous Metamorphosis had suddenly sprouted in abundant health and Seefeel’s pigeons had come home to roost.
Some of the music on the compilation was brilliant, too, notably the work of Ulrich Schnauss, a German producer who would, over his two first solo albums - Far Away Trains Passing By and (especially) 2003’s A Strangely Isolated Place - come to redefine the sound of shoegazing electronica, piling synths, muffled drum machines and vocal snippets on top of each other in giant slabs of sound that bridged the gap between man and machine. Close your eyes and his music could quite easily have been the sound of four students from Reading jamming in a basement, refracted through the hazy gaze of memory.
Whether M83 were listening to Blue Skied An' Clear or the French band’s emergence with a broadly similar sound is coincidence is unclear. What is certain, though, is that by M83’s second album, 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, the band had hit upon a similar - although to my ears less effective - mixture of electronics and shoegazey drone, where fuzzy synth lines and murky drum machines piled into eerie walls of sound, like a Ride B side fed through a ZX Spectrum. It proved an immense critical success - Metacritic gives Dead Cities an overall score of 86, while Pitchfork put it at 188 in their Top 200 Albums of the 2000s - paving the way for the massive, major label commercial success of M83’s later albums Saturdays = Youth, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and Junk.
By this point M83’s sound have been buffed to within an inch of its LA life. And yet on tracks like ‘Midnight City’ you can still hear the hint of shoegaze in the vaguely distorted synth washes and muffled vocal lines (even if the sax solo at the end is possibly the anti-shoegaze in its peacock squawk). Quite what Slowdive et al made of their sound being driven up the global charts a decade after they collapsed from indifference is anyone’s guess. But you can imagine the lucrative - and frequently brilliant - reunion tours that many of the original shoegaze bands had embarked on would have helped to salve any wounds.
As for Ulrich Schnauss, he managed to fulfil the dream of many a shoegaze fan by persuading Chapterhouse to briefly reform in 2008, bringing them on stage at the Truck festival to perform with him. That the song they played was ‘Love Forever’, the track that forms the spine of Pentamerous Metamorphosis’ climactic closing number ‘Epsilon Phase’, seems like the kind of cyclical logic that should satisfy any shoegaze electronica fans brought up on the periodic loops of Seefeel and co.
The following year, Seefeel themselves reformed to play Warp’s 20th anniversary show in Paris, with Warp boss Steve Beckett so impressed by their performance that he suggested they re-sign to his label and record new material. The result was the 2010 EP Faults and an eponymous fourth album that came out the following year to largely impressive reviews. Meanwhile, Slowdive reformed in 2014 and in May 2016 revealed they were working on a new album. The first fruits of this - a summery breeze of indie guitars with the none-more-shoegaze name of ‘Star Roving’ - suggest that electronics are not forefront in their minds. But Souvlaki fans can but hope for a record that extends the electronic journey begun on that album and continued so elegantly on 5.
And if not, then there’s always the Holy Grail of shoegaze electronica: a mooted collaboration between Global Communication’s Mark Pritchard and My Bloody Valentine’s sleepy genius Kevin Shields that has, apparently, long been a subject of conversation between the two men. Given Shields’ glacial work place we won’t hold our breath. But in the meantime, it feels appropriate to dream.