Shoegaze has, too often, collided with other subgenres of what is ostensibly rock in order to truly differentiate itself as a unique genre. When people my age hear the term, we immediately think back to The Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine. When a modern band (one that didn’t originate from 1980’s England) lays claim to the genre, they usually don’t know that whether they recognize it or not, the genre is dead. No one refers to Mogwai as shoegaze, nor Explosions in the Sky, for that matter. The reason is simple: those bands inhabit a current and vital genre of music called post-rock, the genealogy of which is easily traced back to shoegaze — but they are two separate things.
Does it matter? To me, yes: it does matter. I have a visceral reaction to bands whom opt to model themselves and their aesthetic after a dead era: a time and place that has long-since passed. It feels disingenuous and conceited; from the outside it appears to others as an inside joke, given over fully to it’s smug sense of irony. Just because a handful of people can’t think of anything better to listen to than old MBV and Cocteau Twins records doesn’t give them any right to “revive” or reinvent those sounds of yesteryear and wink while asking the audience to indulge in a nostalgic circle-jerk. And to be clear, there is almost no part of me that considers Dinosaur Jr. to be shoegaze, despite historical record or prevailing opinion.
So, I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here regarding my feelings about shoegaze and bands that want to be shoegaze, specifically. The question, then, is how well VibraGun (self-identified as shoegaze) and their self-titled album fare given the circumstances? In a word: “convincingly.” Because while VibraGun is a 21st century band from Seattle and not a thirty year-old, tragically fashionable outfit from England’s underground – they have still managed to harken back to the sounds and feelings shoegazers will find familiar and they also bring in plenty of new energy and ideas that show you just as much of the future as they do the past.
Shoegaze, in my mind, is marked by a number of important elements. Typically, the melodic content of the song trumps the rhythm. Drums often times sound small, nestled within vast swathes of velvety guitar and synth (in particular, considering the MBV sound.) That’s not exactly the case on Vibragun. The drums are plenty big, and the mix between guitars, synth, vocals, and bass never cower in the face of or overwhelm the drums. That is, in my estimation, a more modern approach to mixing – the search for balance and harmony, as opposed to surrendering to the strongest elements of the mix completely. MBV’s Loveless, for example, sounds as though the drummer had not been invited to sit in on the mix sessions. Teeny, tiny drums (if any) swallowed up by a massive, undulating wall of sound: that, to me, is the essence of shoegaze rock.
I can’t get anywhere in my thinking if I continue to refer to this band as being shoegaze. I suppose if they actually stare at their feet during performances I might go along with it, but for now I can’t. I have to judge my enjoyment of this record independent of its genre. And honestly, I thoroughly enjoy this record. It evokes soft comparisons to Seattle’s Ticktockman and Ilan Rubin’s The New Regime, especially during “Send Me to Dream,” the album’s opening track. The song has a driving, humming quality – full of color and light and hidden pieces of magic. The grunge-like bridges of “Oh yeah” nicely break-up the insistence of the song.
I’m a fan of the distinct and healthy tone of the bass guitar, as deep as it is biting. On “Supernova Comedown” you can hear the bass sitting calmly at the center of a storm comprised of bright, distant guitars. The mix, with the exception of the airy, flat snares in “Dream Disintegrate,” is absolutely lovely. Though it lacks the immediacy of modern pop rock, it excels in exploring the soft, dreamy sonic territory staked out by the band’s instruments and arrangements. Vibragun benefits from a strong, decisive, and competent production – from mixing to mastering.
The vocals are also pleasant to hear. Both male and female vocals (whether in harmony together or solo) convey a gentle, lush quality. I was reminded a little of early Foo Fighters and a younger, more sensitive Dave Grohl. But whereas Grohl needed to push his vocals to grab ahold of pop audiences used to hearing mostly the vocal melody in any given mix, VibraGun can take it easy. This band allows it’s vocals to soak into the sonic juice of this record and become a part of a larger feeling. That, in my estimation, is shoegaze.
“All The Cool Kids” sounds closer to the MBV paradigm of shoegaze rock than any other song on the record, if MBV fed their drummer a modest amount of cocaine and let him/her sit in on the final drum mix once their head was clear again. Vibragun’s drums are too beastly to subdue; too precisely executed to gloss over entirely. The moaning harmony of the vocals are especially reminiscent of Loveless, warm and muted and perfectly situated in the mix. Another good sign: while I love synthesizers, I’ve yet to be able to identify their presence on this record with complete certainty – another hallmark trait of shoegaze. Remove those synths, however, and I’m sure more than just a few songs start to fall apart, or at least fail to meet their full sonic potential. It’s hard to recognize the important and the invisible until you remove them.
“Get Away” is more closely-aligned with the Cocteau Twins’ school of shoegaze, with the first half of the song dominated by gentle and articulate female vocals, wide-open sky guitars, and a looped machine-like gallop. At the midway point, the song gives way to a stage-echo tambourine and acoustic guitar strums. It evokes a beautiful Summer day, traveling vast distances over verdant green American interiors. Guitars build slowly and finally let loose with a big, heavy rock passage – all the while maintaining this dream-like aura. It’s a gorgeous, emotion-inducing journey home. And while “Can’t Breath in This Place” doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop that “Get Away” does, it also takes the listener on a journey through heavy open verses, it’s dark and despairing chorus, and it’s folksy acoustic guitar ending.
“Dirty Thing” is a surprise ending for this record, with a schoolyard punk melody that’ll get stuck in your head right away. And even as the song evolves and shows you that it is far more complex than the first few beach-bum rock bars of the verse let on, it stays with you. I could listen to the vocalists harmonize until the end of time. There are certain dynamics between singers that can never be totally resolved or perfected, but Vibragun does a damn good job of showing how well these singers work together. This song is a spirited, fun, and lucid ending to this record.
Whether VibraGun is shoegaze because they say so or because some asshole with a blog does, their music certainly transcends the typical trappings of that or other genres. I think the biggest “pro” argument to make for VibraGun in referring to themselves as shoegaze lies in their vocal styling, and not the smattering of seemingly familiar shoegaze elements sprinkled throughout the album. But honestly… who the fuck cares? If it sounds good, it is good. I try not to know a whole lot about the people I write about; I just try to familiarize myself with their sound. I don’t have to care what they think or why they do what they do. I only care whether or not I enjoy the sound or hate it.
VibraGun’s self-titled album is a highly-enjoyable listen. It takes you to many places within a particular sonic world. It shows you what is important, what is new, and what is conducive to the dream we’re all living in. It is most definitely worth visiting and revisiting, so this is a record you would want to own – and certainly not one you would want to miss.