Words by Peter Tanski
Peter Tanski grew up in the small but thriving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, fronting several bands and founding the music and literary fanzine, Exmortus. After a brief stint living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and writing for Legends Magazine, he returned to Pennsylvania where he began to work with web based music site NEPA Rocks. He currently fronts the melodic hardcore/punk band, Heart Out and hosts The Book of Very Very Bad Things PodZine.
Shadow Plays recalls the cult records that Nirvana’s Nevermind overshadowed, mines the music of Twin Peaks, celebrates some crucial re-issues, and salutes the pioneers of Shoegaze in September’s transmission.
“Someone might say ‘I don’t understand music’, but most people experience music emotionally, and would agree that music is an abstraction.” – David Lynch.
In the Summer of 1991 I was 14 years old. Although my voice had deepened to a near baritone two years prior, I was terminally awkward and painfully shy. I’d vanquished the neighborhood bully the summer prior in a burst of vengeful, Charles Bronson fueled bloodlust, spurned on by the burgeoning paternal instinct I’d felt towards my younger siblings. I should have discovered a swagger, a sense of self satisfaction, but this was not to come for another decade. In the feathered mullet and muscle tee early 90’s, I was a “freak”. My Tony Hawk blonde swoop and California Cheap Skates Catalog attire were deemed social anathema, as were my developing tastes for Italian Giallo and splatter punk novels that I’d hidden my nose in. It was to be the year “Punk Broke”.
That school year began with a peculiar vibration, as the more open minded “normies” had latched on to the safer alternative fair that had ignited a few weeks prior with the release of a album by a clutch of dingy long hairs from Washington called Pearl Jam. My Hesher compatriots had discovered a creepy group from the same locale, and had opened for the mighty Slayer, the Summer prior, called Alice In Chains. Every side of the social spectrum was nearing a zero point convergence… yet they all missed the the true gems that were subsequently overshadowed by Soundgarden and the release of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
September 2, 1991, 22 days before Nirvana released their first Platinum selling affair, 25 days before my 15th birthday, a collective of Reading, U.K. youths issued their first sonic statement with a record that helped define Shoegaze. Slowdive’s “Just For A Day”, like My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” before it, serves as standard bearers for generations of devotees. In the months to follow, Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, The Pixies, and even future mega-stars, The Smashing Pumpkins would release records that were simultaneously outshone and aided by “Nevermind”. These were all crucial records for the mainstream, but the current underground music culture is still hitching it’s wagons to Slowdive’s star.
As those in my high school that had once deemed me a pariah had now embraced music akin to what I’d already discovered in 1983, I graduated from “freak” to “King Freak”. They wanted to know about the t-shirts I’d been wearing, the bands I’d been playing in, the crappy fanzines I’d been peddling at lunch, the flyers taped inside of my locker. My social credit score had always been in question, but in reality these “popular” people seemed to be the least liked humans in our school. In reality, I’d always been vastly more liked by the deepening array of social circles. The burnouts, thrashers, punks, skins, hip hop heads, trailer park denizens and project kids were all counted among my favorite humans. In all of my bashful mystery, I’d quietly built a following so solidly supportive that I’d fairly and squarely won homecoming queen! Of course, the crowns wasn’t to be mine. That was awarded to my ex-girlfriend. So much for the east coast’s progressive leanings in the 90’s.
In the intervening years between their initial early 1990’s three album run and 2017, Slowdive were mostly an insect trapped in amber, fossilized and regarded with awe and wonder, subject to whataboutism and conjecture. What if they had continued? Would they eventually have gone pear shaped and fallen victim to substances and self-satisfaction? Enter their reunion at 2014’s Primavera Sound festival. Neil Halstead and company felt a sense of inertia so compelling that their self-titled record was conjured in the same fashion as their initial 90’s output had.
Enter September 2023, 32 years after their debut, everything is alive (Dead Oceans) is classic Slowdive and something else entirely. Almost devoid of the guitar squalls that were the group’s hallmark, they have opened themselves to an electronic palette that would feel equally at home as a dusky film score and the soundtrack to a epic night drive through the fog licked countryside. It has a sense of space and tone that harnesses sonic textures never before employed. This is Slowdive redefining what it means to be Slowdive, and we should all be so fortunate as to share in it’s magnificent vision.
Ken Andrews, an obvious fan of the aforementioned shoegaze gods, has often employed similar textural devices in his outings under his own name as well as ON. He has also done so with the band he’s most known for, Failure, as well as supergroup Replicants, and the early oughts post-hardcore group Year Of The Rabbit. The band’s sole self-titled full-length distilled similar sounds and married them with his own signature guitar bombast and exquisite arrangements, paying forward the love for 80’s post-punk and 90’s shoe gaze as well as psychedelia and LA Hardcore. The record has finally been remastered for and issued on vinyl this month via Andrew’s own Red Swan, Inc.
Another 90’s indie institution has re-emerged with a long awaited comeback in “Always & Always” (Lost In Ohio), the first recorded material by The Julies in almost three decades. Their third release and first proper full length, the forthcoming album nods to the mid 90’s, midwest emo merged with dream pop and post-punk elements that made The Julies a classic of the era, and matures with arrangements that would render The Editors maudlin and envious. Singles like “My Heaven Is a Dancefloor” and “Symmetry” barely scratch the roiling surface of this thoughtful, melancholy pop juggernaut. Their previous outings, the critically lauded “Lovelife” had been reissued on LP last year, with the cassette only “January” to (hopefully) follow.
While we keep our toes in the 90’s Punk/Indie underground, premier noise-merchants of that era have re-emerged as well. The VSS blew minds and challenged the codified conventions of the Hardcore scene at the time with a spastic, digitized chaos that tore VFWs and all ages shows asunder, all while cultivating an ear for the obscure and histrionic. When the members split, three of them went on to form the similarly eccentric yet decidedly more tuneful and gothic (sans the goth), Pleasure Forever. The indie scene clamored for this new, groovy doom-pop vibe, and Sub Pop came a-calling, dropping two records for the label in 2001 and 2003, creating some of their most accessible work before going silent. Fastforward 20 years and they have re-ignited with their creepiest and most ecstatic offering yet, Distal (Solid Brass).
After having melted faces with a demo that in both sound and spirit felt like it could have come from the most sensual and spooky goth band in England, Lathe Of Heaven unleash the darkly epic “Bound By Naked Skies” (Sacred Bones Records). Named for Nebula Award winning Sci-Fi novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, the group emulate and enact the taut and true sonics of early death rock, poppy goth, and despairing post-punk to showcase incredible bass playing, tortured lyrics and howled vocal barrages. This album is an absolute contender for record of 2023, and will doubtlessly find itself atop the mounting droves of likeminded groups within this scene.
Sacred Bones Records, Lathe’s label, have ever been at the fore of dark music, and have also offered the newest Sextile record, “Push” which renders electro and dance down to a nugatory, vicious element of Neo-Rave dread. And before moving on, it’s worth noting the label has also just given us the latest Follakzoid, II – the latest in a series of conceptual, Roman numeral identified releases, with “V” coming in mere days. Hailing from Santiago, Chile, the psychedelic pop collective have used loops, power electronics, and modular synths to bolster their traditional rock instrumentations, building monolithic passages of progressive musics to roam the post apocalyptic wastes to.
In the intervening between age 15 and (gulp) 47, I have altered my perception in myriad manners using sometimes dubious methods, not the least of which being the art and films of fellow Pennsylvanian, David Lynch. In my teens, his horror infused soap opera, Twin Peaks, had used the songs of the late proto-goth chanteuse, Julie Cruise. Her 1950’s noir masterpiece, 1989’s “Floating Into The Night” (Warner Records Inc. / Sacred Bones Records) finally gets the full reissue treatment on vinyl. Recorded with frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, the late Cruise has never sounded more heartbroken, lovelorn, and doleful. You may know it as the Twin Peaks theme song, but “Falling” single handedly introduced her to a mass audience via the weirdo TV saga, and may she ever reign.
Until next we meet…