The Heavy Music To Shoegaze Pipeline

Nothing / Ben Rayner

The Heavy Music To Shoegaze Pipeline

Nothing / Ben Rayner

Deafheaven producer Jack Shirley and members of Nothing, Alcest, Cloakroom, and more discuss the wave of metal and punk musicians delving into dream-pop

There’s a great meme, popularized by music writer Dan Ozzi, that proposes a limited number of life paths for punks once they turn 30. Ozzi listed hobbies — CrossFit, craft beer, Facebook ranting, etc. — but later incarnations of the meme have expanded it to include the types of music that fans of rowdier or more aggro fare often adopt as their own once “aging out” of their scene: rockabilly, synthwave, bluegrass, or ambient, to name a few. While all of those are still home to many a thriving second-act musical project, over the past decade the trendiest pivot for punk and metal artists of all stripes has been shoegaze. The meme-driven stereotype may depict ex-punks or ex-whatevers falling back into something nostalgic and time-honored, but this crop of heavy shoegazers are doing just the opposite: falling into the genre almost by mistake and then reshaping it in their image.

Characterized by its dreamy, noisy sound, shoegaze originated in the late ’80s in the UK as an offshoot of the country’s then-thriving neo-psychedelia movement. Members of a few early bands like Swervedriver, Cocteau Twins, and My Bloody Valentine came from punk-rock backgrounds, but recently, it’s seemed like every new acclaimed band that’s slapped with a “shoegaze” tag is made up of artists with backgrounds in heavier music. A growing number of metal and punk artists have been steering their sounds in a dreamy direction and swearing allegiance to influences like Hum, Deftones, Failure, Ride, Quicksand, Smashing Pumpkins, and above all, Slowdive — acts that, perhaps not coincidentally, have all experienced recent comebacks, resurgences, or reunions. Look up from your pedalboard and you’ll notice something’s in the air.

Nothing and Deafheaven, two critically beloved bands whose respective hardcore and black metal bona fides are inextricable from their DNA, broke out around the same time in the early 2010s. Their arrival, along with post-hardcore band Title Fight’s gradual descent into shoegaze haze, seemed to herald the start of a more widespread trend. “When [our album] Guilty Of Everything came out in 2014, and [Deafheaven’s] Sunbather shortly before it, there was a weird thing starting to happen,” says Nothing’s Domenic Palermo. “I don’t even really know what to call it because we had a hard time attaching any kind of tag to it. I just felt awkward holding onto anything, like shoegaze or whatever. But it obviously started to pick up and move in its own way. I look at it now and still don’t know what it is.”

Palermo came up in various Philadelphia punk scenes and fronted the hardcore band Horror Show in the early 2000s. Even back then, he was pushing back against punk’s boundaries. He bonded with some likeminded hardcore guys from Boston, Gibby Miller of the band Panic and Wes Eisold of American Nightmare, over their shared love of other genres like shoegaze and darkwave. “We started to feel like it was OK to show that we like that kind of music, because there was a stigma against it at that point in the late ’90s, early 2000s,” Palermo says. “There was a lot of straightedge hardcore at that point. And we kind of broke open this sad boy kind of thing — it almost felt like an anti-straightedge thing. We were all getting fucked up, we were rocking suede shirts playing these big hardcore shows, we really ran with it. So from that point on we all wanted to play in bands like that, but we physically did not know how to yet.”

In 2007, Miller co-founded the experimental post-punk label Dais Records and Eisold debuted his gothy synthpop project Cold Cave, both of which remain active in 2021. Palermo’s career, on the other hand, hit the skids after he stabbed someone during a fight and caught a two-year bid for aggravated assault and attempted murder. “When I came home it took a little while to get back to even thinking about playing music, but when I did, it was to finally take a chance at doing that [shoegaze] kind of thing,” he says. “It was 2010 when I finally decided to start [Nothing], but I had demos all through the late 2000s. I was just too scared to ever release them because I felt so self-conscious about it.”

Palermo’s hesitancy wasn’t unfounded, as Nothing’s music initially didn’t fit neatly into any existing lane in punk or indie music. “We were definitely an oddball band in those first years, pre-Guilty Of Everything and even after Guilty came out,” says Nothing drummer Kyle Kimball, the band’s only remaining original member aside from Palermo. Kimball cut his teeth playing in hardcore bands like Let Down, Salvation, and Mother Of Mercy, but as a fan of “goth music like Sisters Of Mercy” with a unique sense of style (“I would wear bones around my neck while playing with Mother Of Mercy”), he says that “people thought [he] was a weirdo” long before he joined Nothing. “Especially early on before it really clicked with people, [Nothing] were always the loudest band on the show, so that was weird. We’ve definitely played on bills where we were insanely out of place.”

“We got onto some weird bills with these Philly indie bands,” echoes Palermo. “We didn’t really fit on those. We played a lot of punk shows too and it was cool, but we didn’t really fit in there either. It was a lot of adjusting, but eventually it got to a point where it was liberating to be able to do whatever the fuck you want.”

Whatever amount of grief Nothing endured for being too loud for indie shows and too slow-paced for punk ones, it pales in comparison to the criticism and vitriol that shoegaze-adjacent bands from black metal backgrounds faced. With a clean-cut frontman and Sunbather‘s boldly pink album cover, Deafheaven were easy targets for “trve” black metal fans’ ire. Sunbather is, by Metacritic’s count, the best-reviewed album of 2013, but among the user reviews on online metal compendium Encyclopedia Metallum, it sits at a highly divisive 60/100 average (of 27 reviews, 13 score the album higher than 80, while 11 have it at 50 or lower). The album is, to this day, the watershed moment of the hybrid “blackgaze” genre, but it was far from an originator of the sound. More often than not, that title’s given to the French band Alcest.

Founded by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Neige, who got his start in the more traditional (and hateful) black metal band Peste Noire, Alcest were incorporating shoegaze sounds before they even knew what shoegaze really was. “I discovered shoegaze when I was recording my first full-length album [2007’s Souvenirs d’un autre monde], and by that time I had already found the ‘signature’ sound of Alcest,” writes Neige over email. “At the time, I had a solid black metal background but I wanted to bring something different to it than the usual sinister/misanthropic vibe. My approach was much more uplifting, nostalgic, spiritual, otherworldly… While recording Souvenirs, I discovered Slowdive and immediately fell in love with the band. So yeah, I definitely got why people sometimes labeled Alcest ‘shoegaze’ because the two sounds had a lot in common.”

While Souvenirs certainly befuddled some black metal fans in the late 2000s (two particularly choice Metallum reviews from 2007 are titled “Disney Music” and “Fraud”), it wasn’t until blackgaze found its strawman in Sunbather that Alcest faced their most intense criticism. “When Shelter came out, some of our more metal fans were really pissed off,” Neige writes, referring to the 2014 album that jumped headfirst into shoegaze and post-rock. But as has been the case in Nothing’s journey from oddball band to face-in-the-crowd, the confusion and backlash was short-lived. “Metalheads have become more open-minded,” Neige adds. “They certainly are more open-minded now than when I released Souvenirs in 2007. Back then, it was really a type of sound that people weren’t used to hearing.”

What exactly is that sound? Despite bearing clear similarities to (and sometimes taking direct influence from) shoegaze pioneers, none of these younger bands attempt deliberate recreations of early shoegaze recording techniques. In addition to being heavier, their music also tends to pack a hi-fi wallop that was, in most cases, prohibitively expensive to achieve in the late ’80s and early ’90s (music writer Eli Enis dove into the nuts and bolts of this sonic phenomenon in a brilliantly researched piece last year). Sometimes though, it’s not only the band that comes from a punk or metal background, but also the producer.

Before opening his Atomic Garden Recording Studio in East Palo Alto, Jack Shirley was the guitarist in screamo/post-hardcore band Comadre, and although he’s produced, engineered, mixed, and/or recorded some of the past decade’s most vital heavy shoegaze albums, he says his contribution to their sound is often a product of his “DIY hardcore producer brain.” Shirley worked predominantly with punk bands in the studio’s early years, but he struck up a relationship with Bay Area shoegazers Whirr (whose Nick Bassett is also a former member of Deafheaven and Nothing) around 2010. “With Whirr I do remember distinctly being like, ‘Oh, we’re making an indie rock record,'” Shirley says. “They had these male/female vocals and it sounded so good. Then we got to mixing and they’re like, ‘OK, so now make it so you can’t hear the vocals.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ I guess at that point, I must not have been listening to any shoegaze because I remember being like, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever you want, but this is kind of weird.'”

Throughout the 2010s, Shirley continued to record plenty of hardcore bands, but became just as much of a household name for his work with shoegaze-adjacent bands like Whirr, Deafheaven, Oathbreaker, Sylvaine, and King Woman. “Oddly enough,” he says, “the feedback I’ve gotten on records like [Whirr’s debut] Distressor is, ‘Oh my god, it sounds so amazing.’ Like, there wasn’t a lot of care or deliberation that went into this stuff.” In contrast to a shoegaze touchstone like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, whose astronomical production costs are still debated to this day, Shirley achieves similarly lush results via more spartan methodology and technique. “I record mostly analog, and when you record to tape specifically, the capture is really important,” he says. “Because of that, most of what you’re hearing on there is just what happened in the room — you put a bunch of reverb on the drums, you put a bunch of reverb on the vocals, and that’s kind of it. The rest of it is just balancing levels to appease the people in the room.”

Even if producers like Shirley aren’t always putting a ton of post-production effects on the music, shoegaze is still, by definition, an effects-heavy genre. Sometimes, those effects can be just as integral to defining a band’s sound as the music they actually play. When asked about King Woman’s 2017 debut album, Created In The Image Of Suffering, Shirley notes that “the whole thing is fucking drowned in reverb.” This has led to the slow, metallic band often being dubbed “doomgaze,” a tag with which frontwoman Kristina Esfandiari (also formerly of Whirr) may disagree. “I like having reverb on my voice,” she writes over email when asked what attracted her to that specific sound. “Maybe it’s because I have a hard time listening to my vocals dry. I feel exposed.” Esfandiari says she doesn’t even listen to much shoegaze (“besides the shoegaze god herself: Tamaryn”), so in this case, any similarities seem almost entirely due to reverb’s continued association with shoegaze.

For the most part though, the defining shoegaze effects come from guitar pedals, as the genre’s name was inspired in part by the posture necessitated by constant pedal-stomping. This added wrinkle of technical wizardry can both attract and intimidate guitarists who are more comfortable with punk’s plug-and-play ethos, creating a barrier of entry. Doyle Martin, singer and guitarist in heavy shoegazers Cloakroom, as well as a more recent addition to Nothing’s lineup, got his start in the punk/emo bands Lion Of The North and Grown Ups. He says he mostly attended punk shows in his teens, but he remembers seeing shoegaze band Missing Pilots at age 16 or 17 and having his mind blown. “They’re like a Rickenbacker, jazz chorus, really Radiohead-ed out band,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn, you can sound like Radiohead!? You know, you can actually do that!?’ As I started to realize that I could write better songs, or as I just matured as an artist, it was like, ‘Oh, maybe now I’m good enough at guitar to use a pedal.'”

Others, like Nothing bassist Aaron Heard, who also fronts the fantastic hardcore band Jesus Piece, have an easier time switching to shoegaze. “The only trouble I had adjusting to playing with Nothing was playing with some expression and not just slamming my bass all the time,” he says, citing an earlier stint as a bassist in a grindcore band as reason for the latter tendency. “But everything else was an easy transition. It gets a little tiring on stage because I’m used to being a psycho running around — like, an hour-long stretch of me just chillin’ there playing the bass is a little weird.”

Martin’s Cloakroom bandmate, bassist Bobby Markos, grew up similarly punk-focused (“You know how you get when you’re young and angsty, you’re like, ‘This is the only thing that matters: punk music,'” he says), and soon formed the post-hardcore band Native. Markos says that, along with Martin’s effects-heavy guitar tones, another key facet of Cloakroom’s sound came about after they both went to see slowcore greats Codeine play live. “We both still love heavy music and love things to be heavy and loud. But I feel like we just had an interesting concoction of sound, and we just saw Codeine so we knew we wanted to play slow,” Markos says.

“[After] that Codeine show, we’re like, ‘Damn, we need to write cool, slow riffs like this so we could play them for a long time when we’re old,'” echoes Martin. “There’s more longevity to the style, I guess.”

Through this lens, heavy shoegaze seems like it should fit in comfortably among the options in the “life paths for punks once they turn 30” meme, but that’s not the case for two reasons. For one, the sound continues to attract youthful fans and practitioners. “There’s been a whole ‘nother wave of these younger bands that are doing things that we were, and Nothing were, and bands like Whirr were doing 10 years ago, and they’re doing it way better,” says Markos. “So the scene has really evolved, and there’s all these great bands that fit in that Venn diagram that we’ve created.”

“I feel like we broke open the door of that stuff,” says Palermo of younger heavy shoegaze bands. “Honestly there wasn’t a lot of it going on before we…” He pauses, and reconsiders. “I’m not trying to take credit for anything. I want to avoid that at all costs.”

Markos is less hesitant to make that pronouncement. “I consider [Palermo] a trendsetter. I’ll take the pressure off. No modesty needed. He definitely paved the way.”

The other main reason heavy shoegaze bucks categorization as a nostalgia-driven retirement community is that it has, for a decade-plus now, consistently taken shoegaze, punk, and metal into uncharted territory. Neige, for one, notices a “much edgier approach sonically” in many newer blackgaze bands, going so far as to dub it a “shoegaze revival.” On the punk side, there’s not only younger hardcore bands like Code Orange and Vein exploring shoegaze in various side projects, but you can also hear the sound creeping into hardcore itself via arty acts like Higher Power and Turnstile.

Even more established bands, such as Nothing, Deafheaven, and Neige’s former collaborators in the German band Lantlôs, aren’t content resting on their laurels. Nothing’s 2020 album, The Great Dismal, is more dynamic and daring than their previous three. Deafheaven’s upcoming album Infinite Granite attempts the risky act of stripping away their heaviest elements; vocalist George Clarke has even traded screaming for singing. And Lantlôs, having shed their own extreme metal traits on 2014’s Melting Sun, opted for a much poppier, catchier sound on their new release, Wildhund. “It’s hard because fans will always compare what you do to your more ‘distinctive’ sound,” says Neige, speaking about his own work, but continuing: “It’s nice to see Deafheaven also doing an album like that with their new one. It’s a bit of a challenge but it’s super refreshing in the context of a band’s entire discography.”

I’ve been calling all of this stuff “heavy shoegaze” throughout this piece, but with the exception of the well-established blackgaze genre tag, there’s still no real catch-all term for the vibrant array of shoegaze-adjacent music made by musicians fluent in various punk and metal styles. “I don’t really know if any of this stuff is traditional shoegaze,” says Palermo. “Somebody called The Great Dismal ‘American post-shoegaze’ at one point and I was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother me,’ but I still don’t really know what that really means either.”

Despite how nebulous that “post-” prefix is, there does seem to come a time in most rock-based styles of music’s lifespans when stuff gets excitingly divergent enough to slap that on the front of the genre tag — it’s happened with punk, metal, hardcore, and of course, rock itself. So fuck it, I’ll say it: Have we finally arrived at post-shoegaze?

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