As the cliché goes, timing is everything, and this particularly holds true when you’re in a rock band. If your group was influenced by the sound originated in the late ’70s/early ’80s, now is the time to catch that proverbial wave; the music industry can’t seem to get enough of bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, the Kaiser Chiefs, and countless others who spent too much time fawning over their names and clothing. Ten years ago however, sounding like a blend of post-punk and new wave wasn’t all that fashionable. Rather than being labeled innovative, you’d more likely appear to be behind the times.
Perhaps this is why Reverb never received their due accolades. Formed in 1993 and dismantled in 1997, the band never made it past the suburbs of success, maybe because their sound wasn’t in vogue during the heyday of grunge and that strange, awkward period afterwards when every band was trying to distance itself from the Seattle sound (but still employing Eddie Vedder-isms). While most bands were wondering what to do with their distortion pedals, Reverb was perfecting their own sound — a sound decidedly retro in nature, harkening back to the folk psychedelia of the ’60s and shimmering grandeur of ’80s new wave. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Ant Walker, bassist Dave Battersby, and drummer Ben Godding (and later drummer Jason Absolon), Reverb were adept at crafting catchy songs that would foreshadow a retro movement a decade later.
Undoubtedly, this sound is what attracted famed (and criminally underrated) Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant to Reverb. Like the Bunnymen, Reverb’s sound was marked by melodic, arabesque guitar lines; agile, propulsive drumming; and moody, often dark vocals. Sergeant went on to produce some of the band’s work, and even appeared on some of their recordings. Reverb, however, were no Bunnymen rehash; while Sergeant’s band spent their career fusing new wave pop and eerie goth, Reverb’s sound was decidedly more pop, emphasizing melody and hooks.
Swirl compiles Reverb’s entire discography, which consists of a terse 23 songs. The compilation begins with the band’s singles and EPs, and it’s clear why these songs were selected for radio play. They are quite simply, catchy as hell. Album-opener “Pedal” displays the band’s ability to entrance through nuance. What could easily be just another two-and-a-half minute pop song is made ethereal through carefully placed overdubs that resemble chimes and strings. “Swirl” begins with — what else? — a swirling guitar line that gains momentum as the song progresses and displays the exotic majesty of Sergeant’s finer moments. “Colourblind” alternates between chiming guitar notes and distorted chords, displaying the dichotomy in Walker’s lyrics: “My world is black and white / So won’t you bring a little colour to me ” Though the songs fluctuate in tone and approach, each displays the trio’s musicianship, which is tight, fluid, and enveloping. The overall feel is that of a talented young band trying desperately to keep pace with their ambitions, the frantic pace of the songs always one step behind the grandiose ideas.
The second half of Swirl focuses on material taken from Reverb’s one full-length album, which was only released on vinyl. These songs have a more mature feel than the first half of the compilation, and some of the raw energy has been replaced by more complex songwriting. “Cut” for example, is a masterpiece of mood, alternating from eerie minimalism to nearly overwhelming layers of guitar. Some of the songs however, still possess the urgent sound of Reverb’s earlier work. “Vertigo” for instance, begins with a distorted riff that is repeated throughout the song at key moments, until the song explodes into an orgy of guitar overdubs and athletic drumming. These songs hint at the band’s growth, displaying their ability to check raw enthusiasm with skilled craftsmanship. Unfortunately, Reverb wasn’t around long enough to fully develop their potential.
Swirl shows that Reverb was destined to be one of those bands who weren’t fully appreciated until after their demise. Their sound wasn’t in tune with the 1990s, but only because a large part of the 1990s wasn’t in tune with anything durable. Now that retro is once again mainstream, perhaps Reverb will get a second glance and school some of the new acts currently on the charts. Lesson one: the haircuts and suits aren’t as key as the songs