The New Wave Of American Shoegaze

The New Wave Of American Shoegaze

It’s been a long time since shoegaze has felt as invigorated as it does right now. But before examining the riveting state of the present-day shoegaze landscape, it’s important to revisit what happened to the genre throughout the 2010s, a decade of myriad incremental innovations but few radical transformations.

The dominant sound of the decade was molded by bands like Nothing, Cloakroom, and Ringo Deathstarr, who sanded down shoegaze’s typical angles to make increasingly linear, chord-driven music that’s closer in form to traditional alt-rock or punk than art-rock. Channeling Hum, Catherine Wheel, Starflyer 59, and Swervedriver, these so-called “heavy shoegaze” bands eschewed the explorative grooves of My Bloody Valentine and serene murmurs of Slowdive in favor of gargantuan grunge riffs, thunderous percussion, and loud/soft dynamics that climaxed with a metallic force. This particular style is currently more widespread than ever, but its architecture was formally solidified in the middle of the 2010s.

Another major development last decade, which now feels several internet eons in the rearview, was the crystallization of blackgaze, when bands like Deafheaven and Alcest introduced new thrills by seamlessly merging two semi-stagnant genres (black metal and shoegaze) into one. The sheer glut of blackgaze bands who now occupy the “best-selling” section of Bandcamp’s shoegaze tag indicates that this niche scene is still very much active, but the subversive energy Sunbather sewed into the genre’s fabric wore off years ago. Hell, even Deafheaven themselves pivoted to derivative, Nothing-style shoegaze on 2021’s Infinite Granite, a scream-less yawner that’s totally bereft of the groundbreaking vision of their defining work.

Elsewhere in the 2010s, bands like DIIV and the Horrors — and their many, many knockoffs — ventured into the genre’s taut post-punk/goth side: stylish and metropolitan takes on shoegaze with plenty of romantic melancholy in the vocals but a sturdy rock undergirding in the instrumentation that never veered too off the beaten path (fearlessly experimental bands like Montreal’s No Joy and Japan’s Xinlisupreme were a safe haven for the freaks). Meanwhile, loads of bands — pinkshinyultrablast and Blankenberge being two of the best — specialized in regal, brisk shoegaze with angelic vocals and a demeanor that evokes the English stoicism of Lush and Ride, but even more buttoned-up and icy due to the sharper, more precise production quality that bands can hone with today’s opulent equipment.

Three of shoegaze’s pioneering bands — Slowdive, Ride, and Lush — reunited last decade, the former two releasing sleek new records along with the recently-reformed Swervedriver, who dropped their first albums since the ’90s. And yes, the genre’s semi-dormant titans descended from Mt. Olympus with their titular first opus in over 20 years, mbv, which featured some of their most daring compositions yet — though it would take nearly a decade for its influence to begin taking effect.

All of this is to say that shoegaze was as diverse and fertile as ever within those 10 years, but it hasn’t felt as exciting and creatively stimulated as it does right now. Of the many aforementioned bands and their countless contemporaries operating on a local/regional level worldwide, the vast majority of the last decade’s shoegaze felt celebratory and faithful. Maybe even a little too faithful to the genre’s foundational conventions, many of which were established by the English originators who filled the rosters of Creation and 4AD in the early ’90s.

Some of this likely had to do with the explosion of the boutique pedal market, which gave any Jazzmaster owner with disposable income access to ritzy reverbs and mathematical delays, convincing anyone that this genre Kevin Shields constituted with untold hours of studio labor could simply be mastered by dropping a grand on gear. I’d be floored if this didn’t have an impact on the genre’s sound in the second half of the 2010s, when the average shoegaze band began to sound a bit too premium and a lot of the style’s quirky character was lost in favor of material that felt mechanical, stiff, and futsy.

But in 2021 and 2022, a rush of new blood has led to an exciting new era of bands who are returning to shoegaze’s artier side and making music that definitively doesn’t sound expensive. Scrappy, curious, and unmoored from shoegaze’s eurocentric DNA, bands like They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, Full Body 2, Wednesday, Feeble Little Horse, Knifeplay, A Country Western, Hotline TNT, Greet Death, MJ Lenderman, and Bedlocked sound like the genre’s future. Many of these groups are tapping into a well of unexplored avenues that the critically underappreciated Blue Smiley and the now post-shoegaze Spirit Of The Beehive opened up in the mid-2010s, while others are making shoegaze that’s equally indebted to slowcore, country, and emo. And all of these groups are growing out of an era when Duster and Sweet Trip are as canonically important to young alt-rockers as the Pixies and Built To Spill were to previous generations. The deck has been shuffled.

Whether the bands are conscious of it or not (several of them definitely are), this New Wave of American Shoegaze is in direct conversation with the art-rock sensibilities of several of the defining American shoegaze bands — Swirlies, Loveliescrushing, Astrobrite, and Medicine. In the ’90s and beyond, these groups deviated from the cherubic surrealism of the seminal European bands (not MBV, but the ones who’d ditch shoegaze for faceless Britpop after a couple records), creating music that’s messy, unpolished, psychedelic, antagonistic, and more sonically vicious than celestial.

Those trailblazing American acts — almost all of them still overlooked within the broader shoegaze canon — created work that still sounds challenging and vital to this day, but the best part about this new wave of shoegazers is that they’re not interested in being one-for-one ripoffs. Instead, they’re coupling the originators’ squally, jagged guitar tones and renegade spirit with a distinctly modern set of influences that, unlike so many other retromaniac shoegaze bands, dares to look forward, sideways, and upside-down instead of back toward the same bundle of over-replicated British bands.

The world capital for this new wave of bands is Philadelphia, which is coincidentally where the most influential shoegaze band of the 2010s, Nothing, also spurred from. These fresh Philly faces — TAGABOW, Knifeplay, Full Body 2, Hotline TNT, and A Country Western — are intimately connected with their city’s indie-rock lineage of late, drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Blue Smiley and Spirit Of The Beehive, as well as the reigning emperor of weirdo indie-rock, Alex G. His bummer vocal deliveries, homespun production, and unpretentious, sometimes even silly visual presentation looms large over this crop of bands. Also, Duster aren’t from Philly, but the recently resurrected slowcore progressives might as well be given how heavy their thumbprint is on this milieu. If you browse the “Fans Also Like” Spotify tab for any one of these young Philly acts, the results are a smattering of local peers and myriad Duster side-projects.

In fact, to some shoegaze classicists, bands like Hotline TNT, A Country Western, and Feeble Little Horse (a Pittsburgh band who sound like Philly) might register as more slowcore than shoegaze. Whereas the music of MBV and Slowdive sounds elevated, like it’s rising toward the cloudline in a hot air balloon, a song like Hotline TNT’s blown-out and sand-papery “Stampede” sounds deflated. The music has a grounded, dinged-up quality to the vocals — sagging more than they float. Meanwhile, the instrumentation on projects like A Country Western’s addicting Birdfeeder LP has a mesmerizing jamminess that evokes Duster’s Stratosphere more than Drop Nineteens’ Delaware.

It’s the blurry guitarwork (like being wrapped in a blanket of steel wool), musty singing, and yearning, twinkle-eyed emotionality that cement these bands in shoegaze’s eternal tradition. Nevertheless, this is a different approach than the genre’s originators that doesn’t sound like the next notch in the timeline after Cocteau Twins and the Jesus And Mary Chain. Moreover, these are bands whose alt-rock broth is composed of downtrodden rock ingredients from the ’90s — and the garden of 2010s bands who emulate the ’90s — whereas the original wave of shoegazers were tossing their pedal effects into a stew of ’80s alt-rock, which was janglier, gothier and frankly more British than the styles many young American musicians are steeped in today.

The through-composed, nightmarish gales of Spirit Of The Beehive’s first two albums are a much more palpable reference. Compared to the ecstatic glory of a quintessential song like MBV’s “Soon,” SOTB’s early music personified the world-draining despair of a sunrise comedown. Their first two LP’s, 2014’s can-crushing self-titled and 2017’s weirder, pricklier Pleasure Suck, wielded in bleary noise-pop with irritable swipes of temple-pounding grunge, muttery slowcore, and salvia-high psychedelia. Knifeplay’s first several releases were indebted to those SOTB albums, and you can hear their residual vibe in the weary fizzes of Hotline TNT and A Country Western.

The even more specific and under-examined influence — especially on TAGABOW, Full Body 2, and Feeble Little Horse — is Blue Smiley, whose pair of cult-adored albums, 2015’s ok and 2016’s return, synthesized a whole new sound by cranking the chorus effect to ungodly levels and using it as frequently as any other orthodox shoegaze band would use reverse reverb or “glide guitar.” When a turned-to-11 chorus’s idiosyncratic resonance is smeared over the elliptical rhythms that comprise TAGABOW’s mind-sweeping 2022 LP, Lucky Styles — an album’s worth of songs that honor the singular hypnoticism of a Blue Smiley gem like “return” — it gives shoegaze’s tired tropes a bubbly and peculiar new facelift. Blue Smiley’s focus on groove over everything, and using the voice to hum and coo indistinguishable phrases into shapely patterns with a smoggy vocal timbre, has also been highly informative.

“They are one of the best bands of all time,” Full Body 2 guitarist-vocalist Dylan Vaisey says of Blue Smiley. “You can see many others here [in Philly] writing music that aims for the same depth of emotion that they were able to communicate, including us,” adds bassist-vocalist Cassidy Hammond. “Louder guitars, more chorus.”

Blue Smiley were peers of Alex G (many people theorize G’s 2019 ode to opiate victims, “Hope,” is partially about bandleader Brian Nowell, who died tragically young in 2017) and likely would be as notable today as Spirit Of The Beehive if their career wasn’t sadly cut short. However, the euphoric tweaks they made to shoegaze’s gene pool — comparable in scope to the fuzzy, hallucinatory advancements Duster made to slowcore in the late ’90s — are being fully realized by this new wave of bands. But for all of their regional similarities to their recent ancestors, so much of what these new-wave Philly denizens are doing is radically different than anything that came before.

Perhaps the most curious sound you’ll hear in the music of TAGABOW, Full Body 2, and A Country Western is the addition of drum ‘n’ bass breaks. On the former two bands’ 2021 split, EPCOT, TAGABOW collaborate with breakcore producer Casper McFadden on “Menthol Box,” a disorienting banger that dumps smoke billows of shoegaze guitars over a floor-sweeping drum break. As the beat convulses and relaxes, the rest of the mix dotters between ethereal plumes of computer noise and prongs of guitar distortion, shoved through a reverse-reverb pedal to create a foghorn effect. On the next song, “sprite ocarina,” Full Body 2 construct a mosaic of new-agey, pink-and-purple synths, clinking up against highly effected vocals that drip like candlewax. As the drum break picks up, a pounding synth, outfitted with shoegazy guitar effects, slams down atop everything with the force of someone smacking their computer to toggle a “sticky keys” message.

Combining some form of electronic dance production with traditional shoegaze parts is by no means a new formula. In fact, in many ways it goes back to the genre’s clubby — and still-undervalued — trailblazers, A.R. Kane, who weaved purring dub and clanging funk into their Mary Chainsy marches, toying with freaky vocal processing and amorphous song structures in ways that mirror the euphoric abrasion of TAGABOW and Full Body 2. Still, when many people think of “dancey” shoegaze, trip-hoppy bands like Chapterhouse and Bowery Electric come to mind, both of whom could get thrown on the average party mix without disturbing the peace.

TAGABOW and FB2’s creations redline their soundscapes to overstimulating extremes, much like Medicine’s screeching early work, or, specifically, the last two songs on MBV’s self-titled album, which both use d’n’b breaks to build hedonistic piles of staggering noise.

The main sonic traits that distinguish these new bands — TAGABOW, Full Body 2, and also Knifeplay — are their use of highly digitized synths. On practically any Full Body 2 song, or basically any cut from Knifeplay’s 2022 stunner, Animal Drowning, the keyboards and guitars crash forward in unison, blurring the lines between “analog” and “digital” sounds until there’s no way (or reason) to discern which is which. Sure, it’s maybe a little bit similar to M83’s Dead Cities, but without any of that band’s beatific optimism. Again, the emotional palette of all this shit is dreary and miserablist; even when it’s beautiful, it’s alluring in the way a rainbow oil slick can be beautiful, but still pretty dispiriting.

It’s worth noting that Full Body 2 aren’t that far afield from the bitcrushed Drain Gang worshippers, Fax Gang, who are so far the best act to thread a needle between shoegaze and internet-born subgenres like digicore, plugg, and HexD. The connecting tissue between those two bands is that both outfits love Sweet Trip, who have more of an influence on these Philly weirdos than a classic shoegaze band like Pale Saints. The once-overlooked Bay Area duo of Valerie Cooper and Roberto Burgos have been recast by Rate Your Music denizens as vanguards of 2000s indie music, heralded for their ahead-of-their-time collision of IDM, glitch, and shoegaze. At roughly an hour each and littered with dizzying stylistic shifts, 2003’s Velocity: Design: Comfort. and 2009’s You Will Never Know Why can certainly feel overwrought, but the ethos of their music has had an undeniable influence on this new wave of gazers — specifically Full Body 2 and TAGABOW.

Knifeplay are riding their own wave. Formed in the mid-2010s, what started as the bedroom solo project of TJ Strohmer has evolved into a five-piece band who sound like a 10-piece shoegaze symphony. Their first two releases, 2017’s No Funeral and 2019’s Pearlty, put an even darker, more tortured spin on Spirit Of The Beehive’s early sound, but Animal Drowning is an enormous leap forward. Engineered by Jeff Ziegler (the War On Drugs, Kurt Vile), it features the most exquisite production of any release in this milieu, packed with lavish strings and cathedral keyboards that create a balmy, bulging shoegaze sound that’s been compared to Godspeed! You Black Emperor for its skyscraping ambition.

While they’re not as kooky and colorful as TAGABOW or Full Body 2, nor as dank and numb as Hotline TNT or A Country Western, Knifeplay’s kaleidoscopic-yet-wounded constructions have an otherworldly kinship with their local peers. The regional flair is especially felt in Strohmer’s vocals, which might not actually be pitch-shifted up, but are so heavily effected that he can sound like he’s singing in an inhumanly high octave, which creates an unusual tension with the decaying mood of the instrumentation. TAGABOW and Hotline TNT do dabble in actual Auto-Tune on “double apple” and “4-HT,” respectively, which feels like a rich but still-untapped creative mine that hopefully becomes utilized more often in the coming years.

Maybe the next iteration of bizarreness will come from an act like Acid_Freek, the solo affair of TAGABOW drummer Ben Opatut, who sounds like if someone took the Rare RCB hexD.mp3 methodology and applied it to shoegaze. The minute-long songs on 2021’s 100% LP are super compressed, pitched-up but also drowned out by anguished fuzz, making them sound like haunted transmissions playing from the next room over. It’s like Loveliescrushing’s bloweyelashwish if it was created to be a sonic installation at some creepy old mausoleum.

While there’re so many revelatory new sounds coming out of Philly, the reason we’re on the crest of a New Wave of American Shoegaze, not just one city’s worth of cool shit, is that there are several other distinct styles coming to fruition in tandem. One of them is country-gaze, a fledgling genre popularized by its foremost band, Wednesday, who share a kinship with the noisiness of the Philly bands but are otherwise doing their own thing. That is, hitching traditional country music with sand-blasted shoegaze guitars in a way that really hasn’t, almost improbably, been done before.

Unlike the cowgirl-crooning-in-the-moonlight pastoralism of Mazzy Star or Mojave 3, or the brisk Cure-in-the-barnyard Brit-gaze of Moose, Wednesday, who actually reside in the American South, are messier, twangier, rootsier, and bolder than whatever band previously existed as a country-gaze signpost. Karly Hartzman’s lyrics are penned with a drunken honesty, and her wobbly vocal delivery has a whiskey-tipsy slurriness, creating a sound that feels more instinctual, emotional, and human than so many other shoegaze acts, but still providing delightfully voluminous guitar hubbub — laced with fucking lapsteel parts! While they’re not attempting to challenge the ear like some of the Philly bands (you can actually sing along to most of their songs), Wednesday’s sound offers a refreshing reprieve from the stark, preened, stale perfection that plagues so many bands who attempt the pale-faced worship of Slowdive and friends.

If Wednesday are country-gaze’s guiding light, then Greet Death are its dark star. Having made some of the best heavy shoegaze of the late 2010s, their albums Dixieland (2017) and New Hell (2019) use their oppressive sadness as a battering weapon, thwomping down humongous slabs of sheet-metal shoegaze breakdowns during the climaxes of their plodding, demon-excising post-metal meditations. But 2022’s New Low EP saw the rural Michigan-ites transition into country-gaze, an oddly natural flip considering their diaristic confessions about mental health crises, heartbreak, and existential dread already read like down-bad country tunes.

Songs like New Low’s title-track build from a light snowfall of acoustic guitar and twang-tinged singing to a blanketing blizzard of white-out shoegazey fuzz, while “Your Love Is Alcohol” is a crying-by-the-fireplace ballad that swaps in wailing harmonica and desolate piano for hazy guitar, all while Logan Gaval’s breathy intonations keep one boot in the ‘gaze world. It’s maybe not as overtly country as Wednesday, but it sounds like the first step in an oncoming transition toward that sound. If you’re looking for more down-the-middle country-gaze, check out Grave Saddles, a California band who sound like Wednesday’s nextdoor neighbors. Their 2022 Tour Tape is packed with twangy, finger-lickin’ riffs; muffled, whinnying vocal harmonies; and plenty of fleecy textures, which all snap together wonderfully on their nine-minute cover of the Mountain Goats’ “Minnesota.”

Country-gaze is still in its development stages, but two other artists who are puttering around its dusty border fences are MJ Lenderman and Greg Freeman. Lenderman’s clattering 2022 breakout, Boat Songs, definitely trades in Wilco-y indie-rock with a Sonic Youth-ian spikiness, but songs like “SUV” (rickety, tense and propulsive like MBV’s “Honey Power”) and the swelling, shardy “Tastes Just Like it Costs” are definitely shoegaze — and so are older Lenderman cuts like “Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo” and “Another Place.” Also, he’s the co-guitarist of Wednesday, and his playing on 2021’s Twin Plagues and 2022’s Mowing The Leaves Instead Of Piling ‘Em Up is some of the most affecting and stirringly textured shoegaze shredding in recent memory. The way he and Hartzman bend and twist gorgeous counter-melodies out of ringing distortion is like watching a potter mold clay on the fly; their playstyle is so organic and seemingly free-form (and so goddamn loud). It’s such a treat to hear artists like them reinvigorate a genre that, sadly, so often sounds cautious and buttoned-up.

Freeman’s 2022 debut, I Looked Out, is very similar in tremoring, twanging form to Boat Songs, and the magnitude of racket his best songs muster places him on the margins of shoegaze, if not right over the line. The Celtic thrum of noise that kicks off his album is a bit of a red herring (it’s full of hopelessly addicting indie-rock bops), and while a track like “Colorado” is missing shoegaze tenets like “glide guitar,” the voluminous crescendos (packed in tight with warm, tattered horn blasts) create a shoegaze-like effect, and “Souvenir Heart” indeed uses the unmistakable yowl of a distorted ‘gaze guitar. If he doesn’t lean into the ear-piercing power on the next record, then he’s missing a great opportunity.

Running counter to the country-gaze and “Philly shit” movements, bands like Winter, Dummy, and Ylaylali are tapping the ‘gaze-adjacent sounds of Stereolab and Broadcast, and blending their upbeat jauntiness with crisp shoegaze guitars and the da-da-da incantations of Yo La Tengo — all without falling into cheap imitation. Outside of the US, Ukraine’s plaaaato referenced the Philly sound of TAGABOW on their new album, Зачекай ще трохи, and South Korean musician Parannoul has been celebrated for his blend of emo vocal cadences with brittle, blown-out shoegaze compositions. The international shoegaze scene is a whole other beast, so I’ll conclude with the final region that makes up the States’ New Wave: Texas.

Even moreso than Pennsylvania, the state of Texas is currently producing an absolute girth of shoegaze bands. The vast majority of them are playing what I previously described as “heavy shoegaze,” and clearly working with a prolific enthusiasm that has no time for critics like me who think that particular style has hit a creative dead-end. The state has a rich lineage of bands who beefed up the genre with grunge-y and/or metallic elements, from the stonery doom-gaze pioneers True Widow to Ringo Deathstarr and Narrow Head, the latter of whom are currently spearheading a statewide torrent of bands playing shoegaze you can almost push-mosh to. The other main players are bands like Kraus, Trauma Ray, Gravedweller, Grivo, and Bleed.

For listeners who swooned over Nothing, Cloakroom, Greet Death, Ringo Deathstarr, and Holy Fawn when they mastered heavy shoegaze in the 2010s, the bulk of this Texas onslaught doesn’t offer many novel updates. That said, the appetite for these types of bands — which permeate throughout the US, from New Jersey’s all under heaven and California’s Cold Gawd to Oklahoma’s Cursetheknife; and all across the world, from Germany’s Entropy and Belgium’s Slowcrush to France’s Dead Horse One— remains ravenous. So it would feel unfair to not include them under the banner of the New Wave of American Shoegaze, especially since the style has its origins in definitively American bands (hell, maybe Dinosaur Jr. were the founders) and was perfected by American bands in the 2010s.

However, the one band from the Texas bunch who truly feel like they’re onto something different is Bedlocked. Formerly known as Sprawwl, the Houston band’s 2018 debut was transparently steeped in the Spirit Of The Beehivesy sounds of Philly, but on 2022’s panoramic Bedlocked, they find their own identity by fusing the nasally, soporific emo cadences of a band like Oso Oso with lilting slowcore trudges and wreathes of shoegaze guitars. It sounds the most like Knifeplay’s Animal Drowning of all the Texas bands, in that it doesn’t hinge on predictable patterns of tension and release and instead wafts forward like an incoming patch of fog. Emo and shoegaze flirted a lot in the 2010s (Turnover’s dream-pop-punk landmark Peripheral Vision, It Looks Sad.’s flickering Sky Lake, the whole of Pity Sex’s Pixies-but-sadder-and-gazier catalog, to name a few) but Bedlocked’s satiny vocal phrases have a resonance that sounds as steeped in emo-rap as it is emo-rock. When paired with the band’s widescreen arrangements that fold in ass-kicking Long Island emo leads (“Sprawl”) and ovular, meditative slow-folk grooves à la Alex G’s “Gretel” (“Always”), Bedlocked tap into a breathtaking new sound.

In the hook of Bedlocked’s knockout intro, “See Through,” one-man-bandleader J. Zach Gomez recites the phrase, “Wish I never came down,” in agonizing repetition. That single line is emblematic of the New Wave of American Shoegaze, which can all be tied together by the fact that these bands aren’t using shoegaze to escape into utopian beauty, but to reflect back an era in world history where escapism isn’t possible. The original English shoegazers were splitting the difference between the Madchester party scene and the idyllic melancholy of the gothy post-punks. The founder of Creation Records, the most important label in shoegaze history, is as notorious for his perceptive ear as his one-time enjoyment of powder and pills, whose quixotic residue sticks to the idealistic prettiness of those first-wave English ‘gazers.

Not that their misery wasn’t valid, not that what they accomplished isn’t still magnificent to take in, but the music of that time and place — which is still commonly looked upon as shoegaze’s true North, and has been the sonic template for the vast majority of the genre’s 30-year history — doesn’t feel spiritually connected to today’s times. Rather than turning toward the serene in a desperate attempt to evoke a specific sound and pneuma that cannot be reborn, the shoegaze of today’s American bands are speaking to their own generation’s sonic preferences and spiritual woes. Drown in the misery of Philly’s hellish squalls, sway to the bleating cries of country-gaze, and flail your first upward to the deadening stomps of Texas’s heavy gazers and emo realists.

Check out our new playlist, An Introduction To The New Wave Of American Shoegaze.

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