Like the initial eminence of the genre itself, few of shoegazing’s defining acts stuck around for very long. My Bloody Valentine’s seminal shoegazing classic Loveless, released in 1991, would be the luminary outfit’s last release until their comeback with m b v in 2013. Swervedriver’s considerably more rock-orientated contribution to the genre’s legacy in 1993 with Mezcal Head was succeeded by records with barely any semblance of the alt-rock outfit’s original shoegazing influence. Souvlaki, Slowdive’s crucial offering to the legend of shoegazing, was also released in 1993 and, likewise, the Reading-based band’s subsequent record, Pygmalion, marked a departure from their original style, towards more of an ambient electronic sound. What’s more, just like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive are returning 22 years after the release of their last album to make their much-anticipated comeback with a self-titled undertaking. Of course, with more than two decades having passed since their prime, the shoegazing scene has evolved drastically, heralding in the rise to prominence of the niche marriage of black metal and shoegazing that is blackgaze, spearheaded by Alcest and brought to the forefront of heated discussion in the music world by Deafheaven. When it comes to the familiar faces of today’s shoegazing scene, with acts such as Ringo Deathstarr and Pinkshinyultrablast turning a great number of heads in recent years, many of its leading artists hark back to a classic shoegazing sound, whilst working in more modern elements pulled from contemporary dream pop, noise rock, neo-psychedelia, doom metal and a plethora of subgenres to fall under the experimental electronic umbrella. With m b v, My Bloody Valentine seemingly capitalised on this attitude and crafted an album that captured their timeless shoegazing sound, whilst progressing past the style’s initial tropes as to acclimatise to the broadened palette of the modern day’s average shoegazing fan. Hearing of the release of Slowdive, therefore, raised one salient question regarding how, if at all, Slowdive would respond to current trends by tweaking or expanding their sound. With the outfit’s defining material arguably playing towards the territory of dream pop as much as it did shoegazing, Slowdive strikes a similar balance between these two sister styles, although, in the process, the band seems to adhere rather closely to the standard model associated with this sound. Factoring in some questionable production choices and some notably underwritten song structures, Slowdive’s comeback is not so much a return to form for the band’s momentous brand of shoegazing, as established on albums like Souvlaki, more than it is an appeal to stylistic archetypes that does little to add either to the group’s own legacy or that of the genre’s greatly growing paradigm. Much of Slowdive’s initial appeal is definitely translated on their newest endeavour, but a somewhat short-sighted sensibility when it comes to working themselves into the current shoegazing climate makes for an album that is lacking in overall impact or potency.
From the first breaths of Slowdive on the opening track Slomo, the reverb-drenched layers of droning synth chords, cycling guitar licks, spacey snare drums and minimal bass lines wash over the listener just as one would expect from any shoegazing or dream pop record. Compared to previous efforts from Slowdive, however, their sound is not so much understated as it is underwritten, underproduced and underperformed, with the subtle structural quirks that made Souvlaki such a compelling listening experience substituted for extended sections in which the band seems to be aiming to craft an ambiance that they don’t quite manage to bring to full fruition. Rather than Slomo progressing with a very delicate attention to detail, the group will establish a motif and simply allow it to run its course without much in the way of finely-worked intricacies that see any semblance of satisfying release or pay-off for the listener. Similarly, whereas the sweet vocals of frontwoman Rachel Goswell have typically been worked very well into Slowdive’s ethereal tone, this isn’t as often the case across Slowdive, which is particularly true during the middle passage of Slomo. Following an abrupt, and almost jarring, transition from the song’s original section to the next, the group seems to strive for an experimental ambient aesthetic, with the percussion only contributing some sparse bass drums and the occasional snare hit underneath the drifting guitar tone and distant, ghostly chimes. The overall sound that is created here is passable for what Slowdive seem to be going for — although the complete lack of development means it grows stale rather quickly — but the incorporation of the singing leaves a lot to be desired. Despite seemingly attempting to integrate them into the soundscape, the vocals, especially those of guitarist Neil Halstead, seem to be isolated from the rest of the mix, in a way that makes it seem as if they’re competing with the rest of the band, rather than with both of these elements complementing one another or coming together in a particularly gratifying fashion. Indeed, it comes across as if Slowdive studied the sounds of many contemporary dream pop outfits that simply seek to capture a mood or an atmosphere and attempted to replicate that. What they perhaps missed, however, is the fact that the point of appeal for such acts is akin to that of ambient music, and the most successful artists to employ this approach will mould serene, luscious soundscapes that are ignorable enough for the listener to allow to blend into the background, whilst being interesting enough to retain the listener’s attention and not completely lull them into a state of hypnagogia. Slowdive don’t especially seem to strike this balance, however, rather they prioritise ambiance over any sort of strong or interesting compositional framework, and Slomo, as well as songs like No Longer Making Time, Go Get It and Falling Ashes, suffer as a result.
Indeed, the fact that the most successful songs from Slowdive are those that are tailored towards a brand of shoegazing based more around rock, and potentially even post-punk, exemplifies the extent to which Slowdive seem to have specifically miscalculated the modernisation of the dream pop edge to their sound. As is the case on the back-to-back, driving, dreamy grooves of Star Roving and Don’t Know Why, the outfit seems to have unleashed the best melodies from their newest selection of songs on these two tracks. Unfortunately, both cuts nevertheless suffer from stagnation at certain points, much in the same vein as the surrounding songs, with Star Roving, in particular, being held back by a lacking structure and an ending so sudden that it sees the final snare hit get cut off, with it being hard to tell whether this was a deliberate but ill-conceived quirk or if it was a genuine oversight. Even in spite of this, however, the simple, soaring guitar lines of Star Roving and exceptionally well-crafted, cascading vocal melody from Goswell on Don’t Know Why, as well as some well-integrated rhythmic switch-ups that teeter between invigorating fast paces and mellow, laid-back speeds, make for two instances in which Slowdive’s vision, whilst still not fully realised, comes much closer to completion than the rest of the record. Case in point, later on in the tracklisting, on the song Everyone Knows, the group’s inclusion of subtle distortion and a fuzzy, droning synth patch in the mix makes for a messy wall of noise, rather than any sense of luxurious texturing, which is only exacerbated by an awkward, falsetto vocal delivery from Goswell that sees the singer reach out of her range on a few occasions. Indeed, even on the album’s more workable songs, a recurring theme across Slowdive is a lack of complete commitment towards whatever style the band may be striving for. Whilst cuts like Star Roving and especially Don’t Know Why are largely successful in what Slowdive seem to be pursuing, there nevertheless exist hints of the broader structural issues that bog down much of the rest of the record.
The tendency for comeback albums to yield mixed results need not be reiterated, let alone those with as much distance between their precursor as Slowdive, but Slowdive’s return to the recording studio is a special instance, in which the artist seemingly makes a conscious effort to adjust to the greatly evolved music scene in which they find themselves, but don’t quite seem to possess the knowledge and experience to execute this properly. Considering how exponentially more effective the songs that don’t attempt to appeal to a more modern dream pop formula are, with Star Roving and Don’t Know Why being evocative of a more classic, rock-orientated shoegazing style, Slowdive are surely one such act whose pursuit of an aesthetic that works seamlessly into the mould of the modern music world falls short of the mark, and works against the band at the worst of times. Although perfectly passable in the grand scheme of things, Slowdive is not to the quality one would expect from one of the bellwethers of shoegazing.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10