Premature Evaluation: Ride Weather Diaries
When Ride reunited in 2014, they were there to give the people what they wanted: the hits. In those initial shows, the setlists featured songs from across Ride’s career, but material from their landmark 1990 album, Nowhere, dominated and defined the experience, especially for those of us who may have grown up listening to it years after the band had dissolved. This was our first opportunity to hear a monolith like “Dreams Burn Down” explode outwards and fill a room. And it was stunning. But like their fellow British shoegazers Slowdive, Ride’s reunion was the sort of thing that left many listeners unsure of what could reasonably be expected or even anticipated. Would there be new music? Did you care? Would it be any good? (Coincidentally, both groups reunited in 2014 and tested the waters by touring old favorites, and both of them released new music for the first time this year.)
The thing with Ride is that the legacy they had left behind isn’t always entirely clear. They’re talked of as one of the best bands in shoegaze history — and, sure enough, alongside Loveless and Souvlaki, Nowhere remains one of the genre’s classics. But for Ride, that sound was mostly confined to Nowhere and their early EPs, which sound like sketchbooks where the group was workshopping the sound they were about to perfect on their masterpiece debut.
Ride have three other albums, and yet their whole legacy can sometimes be reduced to Nowhere.
Its followup, 1992’s Going Blank Again, kept some of the aqueous guitars but turned them up into a heavier, brighter psychedelia that also incorporated more pop clarity. With jangling guitars and cooing melodies, a lot of it began to reference ’60s psych-pop, and the record now sounds more like a proto-Britpop than what we’d consider strictly shoegaze. It was a great sequel to Nowhere, one that made good on the promise of Ride’s debut while also moving them forward.
Then they sorta veered off the road. Tensions began to develop between co-leaders Andy Bell and Mark Gardener, especially as they began to disagree about what direction the band should take. The classicist rock of Carnival Of Light appeared in 1994, marking a sharp turn away from the band’s signature sound. By the time they were making 1996’s Tarantula — basically a straight-up ’90s alt-rock record — the band had ceased functioning as a unit, with Bell writing most of the material. There are still gems on those records, and they’re not as bad as they were regarded at the time. But they do often sound like the work of an entirely different band than the one who made one of shoegaze’s defining records, and who helped pave the way for the aesthetics (if not the personality) of Britpop.
All of which brings us to Weather Diaries: Ride’s new album, their first since 1996. It was easy to think that new Ride would automatically be a new shoegaze record. But given the stylistic zigs and zags of their first six years of releasing music, and given the disparity in quality amidst those albums, Weather Diaries is a weird one: a legacy band with a massively influential and respected album has returned, but what version of the band were we going to get here? More so than with many other reunions — where you pretty much know whether you want new music or not, and whether it’ll be any good — it’s hard to say what the expectations should be with Weather Diaries.
The resulting album is a logical extension of Ride’s past, while still feeling like a discrete new chapter, one where they’ve taken the aesthetic they’d once perfected and brought it into contemporary times. Weather Diaries doesn’t feel like it could have literally come out in the ’90s. Its highest points do recall the structure and ethos of the band’s shoegazier days, but where Nowhere either submersed you in heavily layered, underwater guitars or made you feel as if you were running along the tops of surrealist clouds, Weather Diaries has an almost arid quality to it. Whether through the production, or aged voices, or simply the lean towards sharpened angles rather than watercolor textures, there’s an occasionally drier, grittier sound to the chiming guitars and blissed-out vocals this time. A band that’s returned in another decade, this time, um…more weathered.
On a few songs, that can also result in a bit of thinness. The main riff of “Charm Assault” is more of an anemic crunch; it was somewhat perplexingly the lead single for Weather Diaries, given how the song squanders a solid verse with an under-cooked chorus. Similarly, the title track feels like it should have more of the soaring drift of earlier Ride — and in its long, droning outro, it gets close — but the more restrained aesthetic makes the song teeter on listless lope, especially when the chorus feels like it runs out of steam halfway through.
Mostly, however, Ride succeed in exploring a subtle range of sonic directions here. “Lateral Alice” and “Cali” are both rockers like “Charm Assault,” though both are catchier, the latter a fuzzy rush (that also happens to mention David Foster Wallace) and the former a bouncy, breezy thing driven by the combination of jangly guitars with more amorphous, crying ones. “Rocket Silver Symphony” is reminiscent of late-’90s/early-’00s Brit-rock, and it has both the most urgent rhythm and the most earnest, biggest chorus on Weather Diaries. Bell rightfully characterized “Home Is A Feeling” as one of the songs here that most explicitly sounds like early Ride, and it’s also a great song — a hazy, sighing thing that works in perfect counterpoint to some of the more direct material surrounding it.
Later, the one-two of “Impermanence” and “White Sands” work as a perfect endpoint for the album. The former could’ve been a fitting closer on its own, but it winds up working in contrast against “White Sands”: “Impermanence” is all flickering calm, like city lights blurring at the end of a humid night, and it’s the gentle feint preceding the album’s real conclusion, the simmering anxiety of “White Sands,” which finds the album fading out on a vocal pattern unnerving in its lack of complete resolution.
The two best songs on the album, however, are “Lannoy Point” and “All I Want.” “Lannoy Point” is a perfect opener, something that feels like an instant Ride classic: built on swirling guitars, synth textures, and propulsive krautrock rhythms, it’s somewhere between a suggestive prologue and an immediate opening shot that’s all forward momentum. “All I Want” is maybe the most convincing depiction of Ride taking what they do well and applying 21st century twists. The altered, trippy vocal is a nice contemporary touch, and the way it pairs with the infectious drum part and sweeping chorus results in a song that’s at turns pretty, off-kilter, and anthemic, but all firmly within Ride’s DNA.
The two songs also both happen to be influenced by current events in the UK. As a band that first rose to prominence with lush music in which you could lose yourself, Ride aren’t the first group you’d call “political,” exactly. But “Lannoy Point” is Gardener’s reflection on “what the fuck is going on with all this backward ‘Little Britain’ depressing, blind faith, Brexit times we find ourselves in.” The main words of its chorus are, “A better sense can start again”; on any other Ride song it would just sound nice, but on this one it’s Gardener hoping they can find their way to a better world than the one bubbling up around them. In turn, “All I Want” was influenced by Theresa May’s policies, and has a line comparing the UK of 2017 to the Germany of the 1930s.
While highly relevant, it’s still sometimes an odd fit — “Lannoy Point” feels too otherworldly to be concerned with one year’s politics, no matter how terrifying, and the glistening buoyancy of “All I Want” makes it feel as if it would make more sense as a love song or something. But in their way, they make a convincing case for how Ride’s music could react to today’s political climate: Both have a yearning for some point off in the future, an escape to when things feel normal again. And, well, it’s damn near impossible to write or think about anything without considering the shitstorm we have going on Stateside, so who can blame Ride for being influenced by the world-upside-down madness in their homeland, too? It’s something Bell alluded to when he told the NME “It’s not like Ride are ‘going political,’ it’s more that the current state of the UK is so terrible that we could not avoid writing about it when we were writing lyrics for the album.”
Sometimes a band with some impeccable catalog reunites and you just know they’re going to tarnish the past. It’s a bit different with the return of Ride. Their legacy is still going to be more or less set — the long shadow of Nowhere hasn’t diminished in the last 21 years — and they had left behind an imperfect catalog anyway. So why not roll the dice? And the result is more than worth it, with songs like “Lannoy Point” and “All I Want” and “Home Is A Feeling” already sounding like they’ll fit alongside the old classics perfectly as Ride continue to tour. While the few moments where Weather Diaries falters echo the band’s past missteps, most of it is a worthy continuation of the moments where they gave us greatness. And in these moments, it’s easy to hope that Weather Diaries goes beyond giving us a handful of great new Ride songs. Instead, maybe it’s the true beginning of a new chapter, with more new albums to come — and just like the first time around, it’ll be interesting to see what enduring music they still have in them and what surprising left turns they might take.
Weather Diaries is out 6/16 via Wichita.