“Time is of the essence” is the repeated mantra of track one of the first Drop Nineteens album since 1993. This hauntingly beautiful track that shares the album’s name begins softly, but there is an energy that is seeping in like the swell that comes with the slow turn of a volume nob. It’s the sound of a band rubbing the dreams out of their eyes and waking up to the world again.
These days, there is no shortage of musicians inspired by shoegaze and dream pop groups like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, but it can be tricky for these projects not to feel like retro throwbacks to the genre’s 1990s glory days. Shoegaze and dream pop have always depended on distorted pop surrealism, but a certain amount of melancholic nostalgia has always seemed an equally essential ingredient. There is something strangely fitting about hearing a band who played together in this style when they were basically still kids, going on to live separate, adult lives, now dusting off their guitars and returning to what brought them together.
To the Drop Nineteens’ credit, Hard Light doesn’t feel like a bunch of older adults trying to come back and cash in on their old-school, youth culture cred. It genuinely sounds like a document made by friends who missed each other and wanted to make something again together before time got away from them yet again.
By 1992, Drop Nineteens from Boston, Massachusetts, found themselves becoming indie darlings with the release of their first album, Delaware, which in the years since has been seen as one of the best examples of the shoegazing genre. The noisy yet undeniably catchy single “Winona” was played on MTV, and the record did well on the UK independent charts. Festival dates and shows followed that had them sharing stages with some of the biggest bands of the era, including the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, the Cranberries, and more. Tension within the band grew; they were just kids after all, and despite continued touring with big names, band members began to quit, and by the time National Coma, their follow-up to Delaware, was released, lead singer Greg Ackell found himself to be the last remaining member of the band. The project was ultimately dissolved for good by 1995.
The finer points of what ended Drop Nineteens and what brought them back together 30 years later could make for interesting drama in a music documentary, but regardless of who said or did what, the music on this assured comeback record speaks for itself. After the noisy fanfare of the title track, the album’s crown jewel, “Scapa Flow”, bursts forth with life and could be an argument for the band getting back together. Familiar shoegaze drones and chiming layers of sound hit the ears with a wonderful modern production, showcasing a group that are eager to play together again.
In many ways, “Scapa Flow” feels like the proper follow-up to “Winona”, Drop Nineteens’s first single that put them on the indie map. At times, the only real thing that separates something like shoegaze from pop-rock is often a burst of sound effect, a noisy squeal, a pitch pending drone that lights up a song with a sense of weightlessness or danger. The chorus of “Scapa Flow” features this sort of hard explain, shoegaze “x factor” and may be the best example of the genre we’ve heard this year.
“Gal” sets a lush, nighttime atmosphere that perfectly showcases Steve Zimmerman, whose melodic bass playing was often what set Drop Nineteens apart from other shoegaze groups who let the low end become a muffled fuzz that hid somewhere in the background. The meet-cute jaunt that is the song “Tarantula” is a joy instrumentally but perhaps is a bit less successful than some of the other songs that make up the LP’s first half. The lyrics about meeting a girl “with a drop dead smile, and killer locks” are one of the only moments on the album where they feel a little old to be at the party. While romance happens at all times in your life, a listener can’t help feeling like these lyrics would work better in the mouths of a younger group.
Similarly, “The Price Was High”, despite being sung with an exciting conviction by guitarist Paula Kelley, feels like it toys with a sort of dangerous attitude that this band of nerds can’t quite pull off in their older age. In many ways, these are easy speedbumps to glide over, especially given their sonic elements in the grand scheme of Hard Light.
For the most part, Drop Nineteens play to what they do best, which is creating hooky, melodic songs that don’t shy away from experimental passages and sonic side plots. “Another One Another” explodes with a spray of melting guitar noise through which Greg Ackell’s sweetly sung vocals guide the listener through a dizzying five minutes of splendor. The record’s shorter passages like “Rose With Smoke”, and “Lookout” work well as quiet interludes and acoustic lulls that make Hard Light flow as a cohesive, almost cinematic experience.
Drop Nineteen’s winding path ultimately leads to the colossal climactic closer song titled: “T”. The seven-minute epic begins with an almost twee-sounding, yet very ethereal, layering of acoustic guitars as the two singers sing passed one another into the night, at times recalling the most cry-worthy moments of Yo La Tengo‘s discography. The idea of ending on a banger finale could come across as an obvious or overly calculated move, but Drop Nineteens, if anything, know how to take their time and earn the big moment, which in this song erupts in a storm guitar effects, that feel both gentle and pummeling at the same time, essentially the sort of paradox shoegaze has always celebrated.
Hard Light feels like a love letter, not only to fans but from one group member to another. A proclamation that seems to say: “Yes, being in that little band with you really did mean a lot.”