Swervedriver: Mezcal Head

Mezcal Head

Most reputable critics will tell you that the most important album to emerge from the British shoegazer movement in the early ’90s was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless — and I wouldn’t disagree. MBV’s masterpiece was a work of profound sonic genius, redefining both the structure of song and the accepted norms of guitar music. It’s hard to imagine how shoegazing would be remembered today in the absence of Loveless, so essential and revolutionary was its melodic din.

But I’m not here to bore you with what you already know. That Loveless was the most astounding artistic achievement of the era is not up for debate. However, I will in the next several paragraphs endeavor to explain why it does not satisfy the way 1993’s Mezcal Head does and why this effort, not Loveless, ranks among my favorite albums of all time.

Mezcal Head is the second album from Swervedriver, an Oxford group that started off sounding like a British rip-off of Dinosaur Jr. but by the release of their first album had morphed into a shoegazer outfit. Aside from being a part of the same movement, Mezcal Head and Loveless also shared a producer in Alan Moulder. Yet the two albums couldn’t be further apart on the sonic spectrum. I’d go as far as to say that they represent two distinct sides of the shoegazer coin. Whether you accept my contention that Mezcal Head is a better, more enjoyable album than Loveless will primarily hinge on your particular view of shoegazing. If, like me, you think its greatest contribution to rock was the manipulation of the traditional guitar sound, then you might want to hear me out. If, on the other hand, you believe that shoegazing’s legacy lies in its deconstruction of the pop song, I doubt my argument will be able to sway you.

Where MBV were all about creating an aesthetic, music reflective of somnolence and half-remembered dreams, Swervedriver were all about the songs. For them, the greatest gift of shoegazing was in the details, not the broad strokes. As a result, many have even refused to include them in the shoegazing movement proper, claiming that they were nothing more than a standard rock band that hijacked a few effects pedals. To an extent, the critics are correct. Swervedriver weren’t out to destroy the pop song (which was arguably the whole point of shoegazing), but ultimately, they achieved something far more controversial by inverting the relationship, by dragging the inherent pretensions of the shoegazing into the pop song.

The truth is that Adam Franklin, the band’s vocalist/guitarist and founding member, was a classic singer-songwriter who just happened to come of age when declaring oneself as such would have not only been unfashionable but downright suicidal. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, the rock world in Britain had been totally transformed by the Jesus and Mary Chain and others that followed in their feedback-fueled wake like Slowdive, Ride, and the aforementioned MBV. The country was captivated by these musicians, dubbed “shoegazers” by the press for their propensity to stare blankly at their shoes while performing. They dispensed with both stage presence and anything else that might qualify as showmanship (i.e., guitar solos were scarce commodities). Likewise, the song themselves were played so loudly as to practically obliterate their foundations, leaving nothing but throbbing white noise and breathy vocals.

Yet Franklin and Co., while admittedly fascinated by the movement, never wholly embraced it. This was a band whose first album, Raise, featured guitar heroics that would make Page disciples proud. In other words, the Swervedriver sound was an anathema to shoegazer purists everywhere. Franklin also elected to give the cloudy atmospherics of shoegazing a solid rhythmic backbone. Rather than bury the drumming, which had become an all too common practice in shoegazer circles, Franklin made sure the percussion was front and center for his fast-driving tunes. He didn’t have the taste for extreme abstraction like some of his contemporaries. Instead of obfuscating the melodies, Franklin used the pedals to accent the songs — at most to give his guitar a mild fuzzy tone. He had no intention of dismantling his songs’ underlying frameworks.

While Swervedriver never strayed far from their original paradigm, the formula clearly reached its zenith onMezcal Head, an almost unimpeachably ambitious undertaking. Mezcal Head combined the best elements of shoegazing with grunge and even American indie rock. From the moment the guitars crash through the speakers at the thirty-eight second mark, there’s nary a weak moment — particularly impressive when you consider that the album is over 60-minutes in length. Brilliance is littered all over the place, from the single “Duel” (named for the Steven Spielberg movie of the same title) to “Harry & Maggie” to the eight-minute monster, “Duress”. The true standouts, however, are the blistering “Last Train to Satansville”, which somehow manages to combine Dylan’s poetic lyricism with jagged, metallic guitars, and “Never Lose that Feeling”, (conspicuously absent on the British version) which features one of the most orgasmic guitar crescendos ever committed to tape. It’s all held together by Franklin’s living-dead vocals, buried slightly but never to the point the lyrics can’t be deciphered.

But as a said before, the true genius of Swervedriver was in the details. The subtle touches of producer Alan Moulder perfectly complement an already fantastic collection of songs. Moulder largely abandons the avant-garde inclinations of his work with MBV, taking care to leave the choruses free of meddlesome abstractions. Guitars pulse in and out without ever losing the plot; Franklin’s voice melts into the feedback but never fades away completely. Moulder’s production gives a welcome and essential post-modern spin to Franklin’s traditional sensibilities.

At the time of its release, Mezcal Head was greeted with cold indifference, mainly because no one knew quite what to make of Swervedriver. They opened for both Soundgarden and then the Smashing Pumpkins, but while those bands went on to achieve commercial success, Swervedriver were forgotten and suffered through a series of record label difficulties. Part of the problem was that Swervedriver never fit into any particular niche. They were too aggressive to be pegged as thoroughbred shoegazers, too pop-oriented for metalheads, and too heavy for alternative radio. In short, they were a marketer’s worst nightmare. But the way they straddled the disparate genres is precisely what makes Mezcal Head so fantastic, unique, and ultimately, what makes it stand out so many years later. Loveless may be shoegazing’s definitive artistic statement, but Mezcal Head is proof that the movement wasn’t as insular or narrowly-defined as many had believed.