Over the past 12 months, much has been said about the re-emergence of shoegaze in 2023. New releases by genre stalwarts like the Drop Nineteens and especially Slowdive, whose tour last year was marked by sold-out shows, have underscored this trend. As noted in an essay by Philip Sherburne, this renewed attention among younger listeners can be attributed to several factors, including the genre’s gender fluidity and its intrinsic studio-craft nature, both of which appeal to today’s artists and audiences.
Yet, shoegaze is also a slippery category that too often gets reduced to signature acts like Slowdive and the field-defining My Bloody Valentine. Delayed a year due to Covid, the 30th-anniversary re-release of In Ribbons (1992) by Pale Saints last October serves as a reminder of how expansive this style can be. With 24 tracks, half of which are demos and alternate versions, this reissue from 4AD revisits the spirit of experimentation that took hold during the early 1990s that went beyond fuzzed-up pedal effects and ear-splitting volume.
Founded in 1987, Pale Saints recorded only three albums, with In Ribbons bookended by their debut, The Comforts of Madness (1990), and their swansong, Slow Buildings (1994). This career brevity can partially be attributed to the band’s changing lineup. Ian Masters, their original vocalist and key songwriter, departed after In Ribbons. Their sophomore release is consequently distinguished by his last appearance, in addition to having the involvement of Meriel Barham, a labelmate on 4AD and the former vocalist for Lush. In short, Pale Saints had become a provisional shoegaze supergroup for the recording of In Ribbons.
The opening track, “Throwing Back the Apple”, demonstrates the fulfillment of this promise with the immediate rush of its wall-of-sound guitars and shifting melodic percussion. Indeed, its unpredictable rhythmic character, helmed by drummer Chris Cooper, quickly differentiates In Ribbons from the guitar-heavy emphasis that is stereotypical for shoegaze. Not that guitars are entirely marginalized. The lead on this song and those that follow by Graeme Naysmith recall the expressive work of the Smiths‘ Johnny Marr and John Squire from the Stone Roses.
From a vocal standpoint, Masters and Barham balance each other well across the album, each exchanging vocal duties depending on the song. Masters’ falsetto on tracks like “Throwing Back the Apple” and “Babymaker” seemingly prefigures the later singing of Thom Yorke. Meanwhile, Barham’s ethereal delivery on standout tracks like “Thread of Light” (an amazing chorus) and “Hunted” resembles that of the late Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. Taken together, In Ribbons checks the shoegaze box of gender fluidity. But more than this, a key strength of this recording rests in beautiful vocal work that is foregrounded and amplified rather than buried in the mix.
Other strengths are also present. “Shell” and the valedictory closer “A Thousand Stars Burst Open” experiment with string accompaniments, adding another sonic and emotional layer to the proceedings. At seven and a half minutes, “Hunted” takes its time to explore different guitar fills and piano lines, inhabiting a spacious structure created by Cooper’s adamant percussion. “Liquid” has an unassuming acoustic intro before launching into moody, atmospheric dream pop. In summary, In Ribbons underlines how Pale Saints tested numerous tonal textures in their work. Unlike My Bloody Valentine, defined by the dominance of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s guitars, each instrument and vocalist plays an equal role on this album.
The demos on this reissue are mostly rough versions of the album’s tracks, at times involving singing without lyrics, which stresses their attention to sonic feeling once more. Some non-album gems are also included. There is a woozy cover of “Kinky Love” by Nancy Sinatra, the finished version of which appeared on the Flesh Balloon EP (1991). There is also a cover of “Blue Flower” by Slapp Happy, but which is better known for the version performed by Mazzy Star on their debut, She Hangs Brightly (1990). Barham’s singing approximates Hope Sandoval’s, giving the song an appealing sense of innocence matched by blasts of staticky feedback in the chorus.
The title In Ribbons suggests something wrapped and presented as the best version of itself. It also suggests something in tatters. Both points of view might apply to this record. There is little repetition on this LP, to the point that the bounds of cohesion are put at risk. Given that Pale Saints splintered after this release, one can assume that In Ribbons was informed by artistic tensions that were productive in the short term but proved unsustainable. Still, this album is a peak moment in their catalog and in the shoegaze genre.
More interesting than treating In Ribbons as an archival document is to consider how bands like Pale Saints lay the groundwork for acts like Radiohead, whose Pablo Honey (1993) debuted a year later. The sense of experimentation and appreciation for texture – vocal, rhythmic, and percussive – that define In Ribbons anticipate similar qualities found in OK Computer (1997) and after. Shoegaze never entirely disappeared but was sublimated into other forms.
Given the current wave of nostalgia, this aspect of evolution is important to remember. In Ribbons highlights how the genre’s key figures proactively took this style and approach in new directions, even if their legacies have lived on in unacknowledged ways.