Various Artists: Sci-Fi-Lo-Fi Vol 3 – Shoegazing 1985-2007

rob-da-bank-sci-fi-lo-fi

Various Artists: Sci-Fi-Lo-Fi Vol 3 - Shoegazing 1985-2007

The third instalment of this series of compilations from the Glasgow based Soma label follows on from Vols 1 and 2, dedicated to PostPunk Dance and Twisted Leftfield Electronica respectively, which might not raise too many eyebrows given that practically every release on Soma is electronica, of varying types.

However, this compilation represents a break with tradition of sorts. Compiled by BBC radio stalwart Rob Da Bank, it attempts, and mostly succeeds, in encompassing the many strands that make up the musical thread known today as “Shoegaze”, a genre perhaps handicapped by that very title. After all, the phrase was originally coined by some wag at the (now defunct) Melody Maker to describe a very loosely connected grouping of late 80s bands whose chorus pedals, drum machines, 4-chord bubblegum pop tunes and almost whispered vocals seemed to represent a fresh departure for what was then a slightly tired London scene. Less frenetic than the first post-punk disco experimentalists and less glamorous than their synth pop contemporaries, the half dozen or so bands which made up the ‘scene which celebrates itself’ – another loosely connected description of these bands which I recall the MM was slightly more comfortable with – are all represented within the 15 tracks which make up this compilation.

Opener “Just Like Honey”, also the first track on the Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy album might seem like an easy choice, chosen to simplify some musical history for the benefit of anyone born after 1985.  And if the Reid brothers are to take credit for kickstarting the entire scene, this also means accepting that their own influences – the Ramones, Brian Wilson, all the way back to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound – find resonances across the following 14 tracks. I’d take minor issue here; the influence of earlier 80s bands such as the Psychedelic Furs and (indisputably) Echo & The Bunnymen is also keenly felt on this compilation, but as the most relevant work of both of these groups dates from the beginning of the 80s, both the Fur’s first album and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here  fall outwith this compilations timescale.

Mr Da Bank hasn’t stinted in his selection of choices though, and there are several tracks which must’ve been gathering dust in the vaults for quite some time until resurrected here. Ultra Vivid Scene’s “Mercy Seat” is a prime example of this, with it’s deceptively fey opening chord sequence which bursts into a grinding squall of drum machine and fuzzed guitars that probably went on to inspire the JAMC’s “Snakedriver”. And before Seattle went left handed, Dinosaur Jr’s edgily jangling garage pop made “Freak Scene” a required listen. Ride’s “Nowhere”, meanwhile, is a howling cacophony of feedback and thudding drum and bass with its chorus pedals set firmly onto overdrive, a bit reminiscent of Spacemen 3’s mid-80s sound, and while the original Spacemen 3 line-up is a notable omission from this selection, we do get to hear Spiritualised’s “If I Were With Her Now” which has a staccato insitency that jars against the folksy guitar picking of Jason Pierce and whose addition of a horn section prefigures the orchestral glories of “Stop Your Crying” over a decade later. Lush also found success within the mainstream and it’s easy to see why. “Sweetness And Light” is a light and airy twist of gossamer from Miki Berenyi and friends, whose career would carry over into mid-90s chart recognition.

As Soma is best known for electronic releases, it’s only natural that three of the tracks here fall into that category although whether they properly qualify as dictionary-definition Shoegaze is open to discussion. Boards Of Canada’s “Zoetrope” has more than a passing resemblance to 70s German experimentalists Tangerine Dream while Ulrich Schnauss’s “On My Own” actually manages to sound a lot like Lush and benefits from the presence of Robin Guthrie at the mixing desk. And M83’s “Teen Angst” is a perfectly alright tune but a track from (say) Loop or House Of Love would fit in a little more aptly amongst the rest of the mainly guitar-led tracks that make up the other four -fifths of the album. The Cocteau Twins themselves appear with the fragile madrigal of  “Cherry Coloured Funk” and Mars’ “You Don’t Know Her Name” has the distinction of sounding a lot like an early Flaming Lips number, although by around this point any resemblance to bands such as Chapterhouse or Pale Saints (also represented here) has almost entirely evaporated.

Final track “White Horses” was originally the theme song of a 1960s French childrens TV series which was filmed in the Camargue, known for its white horse population, was originally sung by une petite chanteuse known only as Jackie, and retains its air of a novelty in Dean And Britta’s interpretation.  Slowdive’s “When The Sun Hits” is a far more accurate example of the classic shoegazing sound, with its echoing drums, spacey keyboards and melodic, yet grittily contorted guitars. But this album could easily have stretched into a two or three CD collection, and compiler Rob Da Bank has, for the most part, chosen wisely.

It’s the range of styles represented on this compilation that make it a properly worthwhile listen. Many of the bands here took the original reverberating thrash format of the early 80s to new heights of otherworldliness, and that sense of exploration has retained both its energies of  almost two decades ago and its influence on what we listen to today. All that’s needed now is for someone to come up with a new description for this hugely varied and eclectic body of music.