Shoegazing’s finest return with their first post-reformation album…
Framed through the critical analysis and commentary of the 21st Century, the transformation of the UK’s indie music scene of the 1990s has largely been focused on Britpop, particularly the Oasis/Blur story. It’s sometimes easy to forget that labels such as 4AD were at their strength, while outfit such as Lush, Pale Saints, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine were all demonstrating a transformation of sound.
Slowdive formed in 1989, a 5-piece outfit consisting of Rachel Goswell (vocals and guitar), Neil Halstead (vocals and guitar), Simon Scott (drums), Nick Chaplin (bass) and Christian Savill (guitar). From their first EP release, also titled Slowdive, the band demonstrated a talent for crafting oddly captivating soundscapes that often had a timeless element to them, such as the sweeping moods of ‘Avalyn I’.
The band’s talent for creating guitar music that often had ambient overtones marked them apart from many of their contemporaries. In fact they approached Brian Eno with a view to bringing him onboard for their second album Souvlaki (Eno declined, although opted to collaborate on two tracks). At the same time, Slowdive were capable of crafting evocative pop, such as the wistful wonder that was ‘Alison’.
The music press culture of the 1990s was, however, not the kindest backdrop for any scene to develop. Fuelled by a constant frenzy to discover the next big trend, polarised by a desire to destroy the current flavour of the month, Slowdive were one of the outfits that got caught in the sights of an unsympathetic press.
Slowdive’s final album, 1995’s Pygmalion, saw the outfit rapidly change course for an album of songs that made much more use of space and minimalism than previous outings. They were dropped by Creation a week after the album was released and Slowdive disbanded.
Halstead and Goswell went on to provide the foundations for the country/folk-influenced Mojave 3, an outfit that continued into the early noughties and ended with the release of 2006’s Puzzles Like You.
The influence of shoegazing in the interim has led to the growth of a whole new breed of dreampop bands that have come to reassess an often overlooked niche of music. Outfits such as Ummagma have embraced that ethereal quality, albeit with a more electronic approach.
With the reemergence of many of the classic acts from the 1990s (including Lush), it seemed perhaps inevitable that Slowdive would return to the fore. Originally, this appeared to be a purely temporary endeavour to embark on new live performance dates. But the announcement in 2016 that the band were working on new material was welcome news to their fanbase.
The release of two of the tracks from the album, ‘Star Roving’ and ‘Sugar For The Bill’ was well received. particularly by a much more user-friendly generation of music press writers.
As an album, Slowdive is a production that certainly has some tunes to boast about. ‘Slomo’ is a languid, spaced-out moment with equally ethereal vocal elements.
Things change gear on ‘Star Roving’, with its stark guitar melody and muscular percussive delivery. It’s a punchy, powerful number and it’s not difficulty to see why the band opted for this song to herald the album.
‘Don’t Know Why’ demonstrates elements of classic Slowdive’s ‘wall of sound’ style which sets the scene nicely for the next track.
There’s little argument that ‘Sugar For The Pill’ is the strongest track on the album. It’s a curious number that strikes for a mid-tempo delivery with a bass guitar rhythm (which seems to throw a nod to Pale Saints to these ears), but there’s a power here through the oddly layered vocals and string effects that lends the whole affair a melancholic beauty. Its strengths also lie in the fact that it’s almost the perfect balance between the spacey guitar of Slowdive and the earnest lyrical delivery of Mojave 3.
Elsewhere, ‘Everyone Knows’ is a lighter take on the driving guitars of ‘Star Roving’. Here, it’s the gossamer vocals of Goswell that are stronger in the mix while the ricocheting rhythms of the guitars do their work in the background.
‘No longer Making Time’ steps down a gear for a more reflective moment, augmented by Halstead’s distinctive vocal (which somehow manages to be both breathy and gravelly at the same time).
Closing the album, the more intimate ‘Falling Ashes’ is a more downbeat affair with its piano melody.
It’s perhaps testament to the songwriting talents at work here that the material on Slowdive never sounds like a pastiche, but emerges as competent and contemporary songs.
Slowdive is a solid album that’s already won over a lot of critics – and is likely to score highly on Album Of The Year polls at the close of 2017. While it can’t be faulted as an album in itself, it’s arguably a strange bedfellow for the rest of the Slowdive oeuvre. There’s a much more grounded approach to music composition here than the material that appears on the likes of Just For A Day or Souvlaki.
Perhaps this isn’t that surprising however as Halstead and Goswell have been continuing to write and record music for long after Slowdive’s initial outings. Their work with Mojave 3 demonstrated a change of style and approach across 5 albums, so its only natural that their revisit to Slowdive here was going to present a new interpretation.
The end result is an accomplished album – and also perhaps a time to reassess Slowdive’s impressive catalogue of songs.
Slowdive is out out now on Dead Oceans.