Slowdive seems, on record, to float away, barely tethered to pop and rock history, a contrast to other other shoegaze acts that make up the “big three,” My Bloody Valentine and Ride. MBV was and is rooted in the Beach Boys, 1960s girl groups, and the Brill Building sound, and Ride wouldn’t exist without the jangle of The Byrds and the mod scene of the late 60s. Slowdive only hinted at MBV’s guitar squall and Ride’s nod to influences, instead crafting slight, ethereal songs on Just for a Day, eventually becoming so ambient that the group recorded with Brian Eno, and dissolved while working on the experimental Pygmalion.
In concert, however, the group rocked, combining the best of all worlds. “This is a pop song,” announced singer-guitarist Rachel Goswell, before starting Souvlaki’s lead track, “Alison,” and so it was, clearly indebted to The Byrds, as was concert opener, “Slowdive.” Torrential sheets of guitar–I counted over twenty-five pedals between Goswell, Neal Halstead, and Christian Saville, all of which got a workout on “Crazy For You”–filled the venue, grounded only by Simon Scott’s expert drumming, which focused on snares and hi-hats early in the set. Bassist Nick Chaplin alternated between the traditional rhythm section and threatening to blast off with the guitarists.
Befitting the shoegaze moniker, the vocals were buried in the mix at times; one could barely hear Halstead’s flat, slightly nasal voice and Goswell’s was sometimes reduced to coos, especially when she contributed to the three-guitar attack. Saville turned the solo on “Souvlaki Space Station” into a slide guitar clinic, an alt-country, sci-fi, spaghetti western that exploded into ambient noise. Even the dream poppy “Catch the Day” and the hushed, folky “Dagger” got workouts, drenched in reverb and delay.
Unlike MBV’s live struggles last year, Slowdive didn’t show many signs of rust. Goswell joked with Halstead throughout, and the only false start was corrected without tension. The band live-premiered the b-side “Albatross,” a post-rock song that follows the “loud-quiet-loud” formula they helped to pioneer.
In 2013 I saw MBV live. This year I saw Slowdive. It’s your move in 2015, Ride.
You may know the name Pete Astor from his time as the singer for The Loft and Weather Prophets, two rather likable bands from the early years of Creation Records. Well, in addition to his credentials as a performer, he also has a position giving lectures on Musicology at the University of Westminster, so he understands rock from an academic perspective as well as a visceral one. This makes him just about the perfect person to write the book on Blank Generation, an album that brilliantly combined the intelligence of Hell’s poetry with the rebellious force of rock music. Astor comes through big time here, combining personal stories regarding Hell and the album, with an explanation of a wide range of influences that, when combined, made Blank Generation such a powerful statement, musically, lyrically and aesthetically. Personally I’ve loved the album ever since I first heard it about 15 years ago, and even though I’ve read Hell’s autobiography and countless other books on the early years on New York punk, Astor adds a lot of new information and perspective to the story. Take the album’s title song for example, a well known (a often misunderstood) classic, yet I never realized that it was a combination of the chords from Ray Charles “Hit The Road Jack”, and a novelty single called “I Belong To The Beat Generation” purposefully designed to create a statement similar to The Who’s “My Generation”. The book also gives just due to The Voidoids, explaining the crucial role guitarists Ivan Julian & Robert Quine, along with drummer Marc Bell, had in enhancing Hell’s visions in a unique and actually quite accomplished way. Astor details their pre-Voidoids resumes, showing that these were no punk amateurs – not even close. As with any volume of the 33 1/3 series, the book’s success lies squarely on whether or not it makes you think differently about the album and if it made you want to listen to it again with fresh ears. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
One of the things I like most about the 33 1/3 series is that besides each book focusing on an individual album, the writers are given almost no guiding rules on how they choose to explore that album. You might pick up a volume that talks about the making of an album, or one based on the author’s own personal experiences listening to an album at different points in their life or you might even get one where the author writes a novel based on an album. Ethan Hayden’s book is a study of Sigur Ros’ 2002 album ( ), largely concerned with the album’s use (or non-use) of language. If you’re unfamiliar with ( ), well you already see how the title has no apparent meaning. Add to that no song titles (instead they’re referred to as “Untitled 1″, “Untitled 2″, and so on) and lyrics that are a made up set of nonsensical sounds referred to as Hopelandic, and you’ve got an album where words have no meaning and vocal sounds are reduced down to gobbledygook, with just 30 syllables used in 72 minutes of music (this sentence uses more). Yet, despite these challenges, the album is entirely engaging on an emotional level and rich with meaning. Hayden details how Sigur Ros accomplishes this feat, and also goes on a long, and sometimes long-winded, exploration of historical antecedents for untranslatable language in the world of art and literature. While Sigur Ros fans who are not also students of linguistics would probably prefer a book that concentrated more on the music and less on things like trochaic rhythm, xenogloss and echolalia, there’s no denying that Hayden does make his points successfully and reading this book did give me a new level of appreciation for an album I already loved.
Before I talk about this record, I need to say a few things about my preference in musical formats. Until someone comes up with a format that combines the sound of vinyl, the predictability of CDs, and the portability of digital, I’m a staunch CD guy. I know everyone says vinyl sounds the best, and maybe it does, but I’ve got too much time and money invested into CDs to turn back now. Plus with vinyl there’s still issues with dust and scratches affecting the sound over time. I know for sure I definitely don’t like digital as a format. Yes, I like the portability, but there’s such a big difference in music imported from CDs vs. downloaded MP3s – that difference being that the downloaded MP3s sound like crap to me. Most people can’t tell the difference, but I can, and it always bothers me whenever I’m forced to listen to downloaded MP3s.
I bring this up because To Him Who Wills The Way is only available on vinyl and digital formats – no CD. It’s not the first release to go that route, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it rankles each time. I digress…. now onto the music.
Regardless of the format, this is a strong record for the Chicago foursome. Perhaps they don’t veer far from the template of hard-hitting post-punk they debuted with a decade ago (and it’s hard to believe I’ve been reviewing their music for that long), but they do find ways to add some new twists and turns into their sound. Opening track “Impending Doom” does that extremely well, starting with a synthy chorus that sounds like it was ripped straight from a Werner Herzog film, then blossoming into something dark and foreboding that reminds me of Black Sabbath (always a good thing) with Jocelyn Summers’ vocals filtered through what I think is an echoplex, creating an effect that instantly reminds me of old Jane’s Addiction records. This is also a good thing. Elsewhere, “Eyesore” is a textbook example of the Walking Bicycles aggressive-meets-atmospheric sound, and could have been on any of their releases from the past decade. That said, those stabbing shards of guitar on the chorus certainly make it hard to forget. “War Paint” is another standout track, with tight rhythms from Jason Leather and Deric Criss setting the stage for another gloomy and claustrophobic number, with lyrics perhaps referencing guitarist/Highwheel Records label head Julius Moriarty’s recent three year jail stint for pot possession (a ridiculous sentence in my opinion). To Him That Wills The Way may end quickly with ten songs clocking in at 29 minutes, but it doesn’t waste a second of that time and I find myself returning to it regularly. Now about that CD release…