After languishing for over 10 years as a frequently cited, rarely performed influence on an entire generation of bands, shoegaze appears to be a viable genre again.
A tale of two shoegaze revival bands playing live last spring:
Band A was headlining. Apparently bent on riding bad traditions (and genre nomenclature) straight into the ground, they literally stared at their feet for much of the set, barely moving on the stage as they laid down walls of guitar noise. The solid blast of feedback they created, mostly lacking in any discernible riffs, chords, or notes, wound on interminably, usually submerging both percussion and vocals in an incoherent haze of effects. The results could perhaps be generously be called "hypnotic," but mostly ran towards "dull and featureless." And all this from a band that actually sounds just fine, if a bit formulaic, when their sound is tempered by studio production and mixing.
Band B, the opener, was a little different. Though setting up a similar sheen of distortion for much of the set, the band's compositions only eschewed melody for pure noise at key, highly coordinated moments as an effective accent that never overpowered or distracted. With a stronger sense of pop structure, the songs were catchier and more varied. Despite the dense, full sound, good mixing maintained a surprising level of instrument separation. The lead singer not only sang beautifully throughout in both English and Japanese, but well-placed reverb lifted her voice cleanly out of the surrounding guitar wash at all times, allowing intelligible words and tune -- even when the guitar plunged into pure (satisfying) clamor. And their eyes never once lingered on their feet. Perhaps this wasn't exactly what shoegaze has been, but it seemed like just what shoegaze should be.
Band A was Norway's Serena Maneesh, band B was Brooklyn's Asobi Seksu, who have just released their long-awaited sophomore album, Citrus.
Though I enjoyed their self-titled debut, Asobi Seksu has always been at their best on stage. The last few years they've been playing mostly newer, better songs, and many of them appear on Citrus. At the same time, however, they've always made good use of concerts to allow all of their tracks to become livelier and noisier, ramping up the guitar abuse without loosing track of the songs in the process. The importance of this noisier live approach has now become evident: through the lens of these shows, Citrus feels familiar but oddly restrained. While the improved songwriting and occasionally glorious displays of white noise endeared me to the album on first listen, the gentler tracks are occasionally disappointing. Songs like "Thursday", still a lovely pop song lapped at by tidy guitar waves, seem somewhat diluted here. "Strings" is so quiet as to be unfamiliar at first. Too much of the album's second half drifts by unnoticed, mostly due to the smoothing of the rough (and thrilling) edges.
Of course, these caveats only surface because of Asobi Seksu's inarguable prowess, which remains on display during their best material. Take the oddly structured "Strawberries": it slides through two bass crunch-backed verses of shoegaze pop before dropping into a sparse-but-propulsive breakdown, gradually building a pure wall of noise with singer Yuki's voice floating effortlessly above it all. On "New Years", they allow themselves to explore dissonance and atonality just before the final chorus. What would be exhausting as an entire song is, couched in an excellent piece of pop, refreshingly jarring. Other tracks like "Lions and Tigers" and "Mizu Asobi" are simple but perfect exercises in balancing soaring keyboard melodies against thick guitar buzz. Finally, "Exotic Animal Paradise" is the rare example that stands out because of the album's restraint, pairing Yuki's vocals with resonant glockenspiel before the song is inundated in fuzz once again.
After languishing for over ten years as a frequently cited, rarely performed influence on an entire generation of bands, shoegaze appears to be a viable genre again, a fact which makes me very happy. Once again we can satisfy cravings for walls of feedback and distortion with live bands, though some perform more compellingly than others. Asobi Seksu is the best of this bumper crop yet. At least on stage, their well-placed hooks and clear vocals confidently meeting the difficult task of updating and refining a classic sound. While Asobi Seksu recordings have yet to fully capture their live excellence, Citrus is still an accomplished noise-pop album, one that suggests there is plenty of new life yet to be found in exhuming shoegaze.