Vyva Melinkolya is a Reminder of Why Shoegaze is Great

I watched lot of figure skating and icedancing during the Olympics. In those competitions, contestants receive two different scores during the routine: there is the technical score, where the judges determine how well they executed certain elements of their routine, then there is a program component score that measures their artistry, interpretation and presentation. Honestly, it’s a pretty baffling scoring system for a sport and it is communicated very poorly to the viewing audience, but it got me thinking about how I evaluate music, especially shoegaze.

There is a very established shoegaze formula, and like those figure skating routines, there are certain elements I really want the performer to nail. It comes down to a certain balance of the reverb and noise of the guitar with the vocals and the melodies. Everyone who makes this music is aware of that framework and there’s a large supply of technically competent shoegaze out there. Where I’ve found artists struggle most is in that “program component” area: a lot of shoegaze will sound the way I want, but it’s hard to make it feel personal and meaningful, which is how the formula can be transcended.

I found this album on Bandcamp by Vyva Melinkolya, and it stands out because of how it nails the technical aspects of shoegaze while also having a personal touch — it’s a melding of the shoegaze formula with the type of intimate recordings that Bandcamp makes possible. On a technical level, the sound of this album is like a tribute to all the shoegazers of the past, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration from Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and others. But what I really love about it is how it has a real sense of individuality and purpose. While shoegaze can so easily be impersonal and focused purely on aesthetics, this album suggests that, beneath all the layers of reverb and noise, it can be a way for an artist to express their true self.

Alyc Diaz is the artist here, and this self-titled album really feels like it reflects her personality and experiences, even if a lot of it is kept under a veil of noise. To that end, she helps with any problems deciphering the lyrics by adding intimate little notes on each song on Bandcamp, which could have been handwritten in a different era. They give the impression of an artist who is passionate about this style of music and is trying to figure out who she is. The note on “Identity” says it’s “about a lot of things. Gender, trauma, seeing things that aren’t there, transitioning.” In the song, she sings “I look in the mirror, don’t even know me.”

The uncertainty in the lyrics is a natural match for the shoegaze style, which can allow a singer to remain hidden from view. Beneath the sheets of guitar, Diaz carves out a little world for herself, proving the universal power of shoegaze: it doesn’t care about your gender, the language you speak, or really anything else as long as you can get that chemistry right. In track after track, Diaz finds the right balance of loudness and quiet and ugliness and beauty.

Her talents are immediately present on the first track, “Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak).” Its title, which references the Cocteau Twins’ “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with the heavy opening riff make it instantly clear that she knows the history of this music and how to recreate it. There is a feeling of longing in the song and its lyrics, when Diaz insists “love’s easy years will come to me if I truly believe.” Like the rest of this album, this song functions as an ode to what makes shoegaze great and as a powerful personal statement.

Here is Some New Shoegaze For You

This will be a rare post where I keep my rambling to a minimum and just present some music I like for your consideration. I’ve been trying to listen to as much shoegaze as I can on Bandcamp and think these are some of the best releases in the genre from 2017.

Overlake – Fall

This band chose a fitting album title, since their music is firmly in the autumnal style of shoegaze popularized by bands like Yo La Tengo. The trio has a fairly massive sound on some songs, but for the most part this is more subtle shoegaze with hazy guitar and perfect man/woman vocal harmonies.

The Cherry Wave – Shimaru

This group of Scots has a fairly different take on the genre than most that I’ve heard. They ditch the typical breathy vocals for a more post-hardcore style, which is combined with aggressive guitars and drums to make a sound that is like “normal” rock music, but retains the genre’s naturally dreamy, psychedelic qualities. It’s also really loud, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Tashaki Miyaki – The Dream

The Dream is a fairly standard take on the dream pop side of shoegaze that is clearly influenced by bands like Mazzy Star and Best Coast, who each added twinges of country to the style and are both also obsessed with California. Tashaki Miyaki make cinematic ballads about big city dreamers in L.A., but there is a darkness beneath their majestic sound that comes out in their lyrics, which often contain cutting social commentary.

Deafcult – Auras

Australia’s Deafcult has a bunch of guitarists and singers and uses all of them to make loud music that sounds good. Not the most in-depth description, but this is just classic shoegaze executed a high level, and it sounds the way I want it to.

Plant Cell – Flowergaze

Flowergaze is a compilation of tracks this Japanese and Chinese band has been trickling out for the last couple of years. Sort of like Deafcult, they’re a six-piece that goes for a big, expansive sound, with tracks that focus more on instrumentals and are inspired by the natural world.

Las Robertas – Waves of the New

There are a couple bands every year that I’m convinced are making music meant to cater to me personally. Costa Rica’s Las Robertas basically sound like what I wish every band would sound like, with noisy guitars, girl group harmonies, and catchy hooks. This style of sunny psychedelia is fairly common, but few bands have done it this well.

Slowdive is Too Pretty

No band has benefited more from jumping on the trendy reunion train than Slowdive. The shoegaze group, which had been inactive since the mid-90s — when they were basically run out of town by their record label and the music press — has returned to a larger audience than ever while being recast as a festival headliner. And as one of the “original” shoegaze bands (along with the also-reunited My Bloody Valentine and Ride), they’re being credited with innovating a genre that continues to influence a massive amount of current music.

This portrayal of Slowdive is odd, because I never felt like they were a particularly innovative or important band. Their most famous album, Souvlaki, came out well after MBV defined the genre with Loveless, and the band hadn’t even formed when Isn’t Anything was released. Their main innovation to the genre was removing a lot of the rough edges and tension that make MBV such a unique band and instead making music that was smooth and pretty, but much less compelling. I partially blame them for this current strand of indie music like The xx that is very concerned with being “spacious” and “chill,” to the point that the people making it sound disinterested in their own music.

Slowdive’s self-titled reunion album cements their legacy as a slightly above-average shoegaze band. It sounds very pretty and meticulously arranged, but that is part of the problem. My favorite part of shoegaze is how it can sound chaotic and beautiful at the same time when really loud guitars collide with the breathy vocals and melodies. While the genre’s name implied a passiveness on behalf of the performers, bands like MBV have a confrontational element to their music — they’re testing the audience with massive sheets of noise to see if they can find the melodies buried underneath.

Part of why I’m not so enamored with this Slowdive album is that it lives down to the derisive nickname of the genre. It’s very passive music that ends up settling in the background rather than engaging the listener. I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s terrible — the members of this band are very experienced and know how to make music in this style, and I like “Star Roving” and a couple of other songs. I’m just struggling to really care about it or feel like I need to listen to a new Slowdive album in 2017. It’s too quiet and one-note, without the tensions and contrasts that I like to hear in this style of music.

I’ll admit that I might be biased against this album, because I’m so averse to this trend of manufactured nostalgia where everyone gets hyped for some middle-tier 90s band that already had a full career arc. I don’t get this excitement for Slowdive when they have three albums and some EPs that you can listen to at any time, then formed Mojave 3 and released more albums that barely anyone cares about. I wish some of this excitement was reserved for newer bands, or even bands that were around in the 90s and have continued making music instead of breaking up then reuniting.

As for this “shoegaze revival” created by the original bands reuniting, I think it’s a misnomer. Anyone who actually listens to and likes this genre knows that it’s been alive and well for years as tons of bands have added their own spin on the formula and continued pushing it forward. While MBV’s reunion album showed that they’re still the masters of this genre, Slowdive blends in with all the other revivalists and feels unremarkable.

#7: Rev Rev Rev – “Des Fleurs Magiques Bourdonnaient”

The shoegaze tag on Bandcamp is a mess. Most of the bands that use it don’t really know what shoegaze is, and even the ones that do are often these heinous genre mash-ups, where they’re like “wouldn’t it be cool to combine shoegaze and EDM.” No. It wouldn’t be. Shoegaze is great. Shoegaze doesn’t need to be “improved upon” by your weak attempts at innovation. When I go to the shoegaze tag on Bandcamp, I want to hear shoegaze, not not-shoegaze.

So I have respect for Rev Rev Rev, a band I found on the tag that plays straight-up shoegaze. They don’t really add new wrinkles to the genre or even attempt to innovate in any way. But they nail the guitar sound that makes me love this style of music and have the right vocals and songcraft, none of which is a trivial accomplishment given how many bands attempt the My Bloody Valentine impression and fall flat.

The Italian group sounds like the usual suspects of classic shoegaze bands, with a more heavy and psychedelic take on the genre that most closely resembles You Made Me Realise era MBV with some of the repetitious elements of space rock. The band mixes in some lighter dream pop elements, but for the most part it’s really loud guitars with light vocals. As it turns out, the formula still works, and it takes some skill to know not to mess with it.

#14: Lorelle Meets the Obsolete – “Balance”

Balance is a fitting name for a Lorelle Meets the Obsolete album, as the duo from Mexico is all about juggling various psychedelic influences, dropping them in a pot, and brewing up a sound that is both original and familiar. When I listened to this album, I felt like I was watching a beloved old movie that I barely remembered, and all of my favorite parts were coming back to me. “Oh yeah, the My Bloody Valentine part! I love this part!” Repeat for Stereolab, The United States of America, etc.

Lorelle Meets the Obsolete uses that nostalgia and familiarity to its advantage. The opening title track starts as a normal-sounding rock song, but then has a seemingly random synth part that initially sounds out of place, then a loud guitar part that comes out of nowhere. The band does that a lot, mixing in different styles of music to surprise any listener who is expecting them to paint by numbers.

Balance starts out with that style of noisy rock, but evolves partway through with some surprisingly affecting, almost ambient pieces. “Father’s Tears” is a minimalist folk-inspired tune that sounds like something from Tender Buttons era Broadcast.”The Sound of All Things” is a spacey song with a motorik beat that builds on itself for over five minutes before fading out with an emotional coda — it’s the best example of how this band assembles memorable songs from recycled parts.

 

Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

#24: Pinkshinyultrablast – “Everything Else Matters”

Pinkshinyultrablast hail from St. Petersburg, where I like to imagine they’re part of a booming Russian shoegaze scene. Everything Else Matters is their first proper album, and it’s clearly indebted to the usual shoegaze suspects, with songs consisting of the familiar wall of sound guitars and indecipherable vocals (from Lyubov Soloveva) that blend into the music. Pinkshinyultrablast feel more like they’re gazing into the sky than at their shoes, as they put a spacier spin on the genre with some longer songs that contain remnants of their beginnings as a krautrock band.

I’ll be honest: shoegaze albums are like pizza for me. Some are better than others because they have better ingredients, but I pretty much always like them unless I run into the rare Papa John’s equivalent. Pinkshinyultrablast don’t reinvent the wheel, but Everything Else Matters hits the familiar, satisfying notes I want out of shoegaze, and the band puts enough of their own spin on it that they don’t sound like pale imitators. It’s a simple crowd-pleaser for any loud guitars aficionado.