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'Souvlaki’: the shoegaze genre’s dreamy apotheosis

Slowdive's masterpiece, now celebrating 30 years, remains the definitive record for shoegaze, though it got eviscerating reviews when it first came out

Slowdive  at the 2014 NOS Primavera Sound in Porto.
Slowdive at the 2014 NOS Primavera Sound in Porto. (Wikimedia Commons)

The music press can be a cruel, fickle beast, building you up as the next big thing one day and tearing you down the next. It’s a reality that shoegaze pioneers Slowdive know better than most. When the Reading, UK, band—consisting of Rachel Goswell, Neil Halstead, Christian Savill, Nick Chaplin and Simon Scott—released their woozy, somnolent self-titled debut EP in 1990, they were met with rapturous applause from the incredibly influential tastemakers at the now defunct Melody Maker, and NME. Less than a year later, those same gatekeepers discovered grunge and Britpop and last month’s band-of-the-moment found themselves kicked unceremoniously to the curb.

Slowdive’s 1991 full-length debut, Just For A Day, received unexpectedly middling reviews, with Melody Maker’s Paul Lester calling it a “major f*cking letdown”. And then things got really vicious. Shoegaze’s dense clouds of guitar-effects fog and aerosolised emotion stood in stark contrast to the meaty self-flagellation of grunge and the reactionary lad-rock of Britpop. That difference was enough to spark off a brutal backlash against the scene, one which had always seemed just around the corner anyway—the name “shoegaze” itself originated as a pejorative for the musicians’ habit of staring at their guitar pedal boards on stage.

The band’s members were barely out of school and baffled by the hostility—epitomised by Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers declaring that he “hates Slowdive more than Hitler”—but they tried to focus on touring and writing songs for their next record. When they took 40 of these songs to Creation Records label owner Alan McGee, he rejected them out of hand, only adding to the pressure the band were under. Their attempt to get Brian Eno to produce the record failed, though he did collaborate with them on two songs. And just before they entered the studio, high-school sweethearts Goswell and Halstead broke up.

The band—especially main songwriter Halstead—took all that confusion, hurt and fear, fed it through racks of guitar pedals and synthesisers and came out with the neo-psychedelic masterpiece that is Souvlaki, which marked its 30th anniversary last week. If Loveless, by label-mates My Bloody Valentine, was shoegaze’s defining blueprint, Souvlaki is the genre’s dreamy apotheosis. Guitars stretch and swirl in gossamer contrails as Halstead and Goswell’s breathy vocals shine through the mix like columns of sunlight in the mist. Dense, kaleidoscopic layers of sound transform into a diaphanous haze of pure emotion.

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Opener Alison is classic sleepwalker-pop, a hallucinatory dream of love and loss. Machine Gun’s helium-laced vocals invoke a mythical oasis drowned by a burst dam, the paradise of young love lost in cataclysm. Sing—one of the two Brain Eno collaborations—layers bleeps and oceanic burbles over its narcotic blur of guitars, a submersible plumbing dark, deep depths of emotion. The acoustic dream-folk of Dagger approaches some of grunge’s pathos, foreshadowing the country-folk of Halstead’s later work.

Souvlaki’s grand sweep and emotional heft is defined by two back-to-back tracks: Souvlaki Space Station and When The Sun Hits. In the former, cosmic washes of guitar delay and reverb fill the horizon, leaving you adrift in an infinity of multicoloured sound. Just as that dust-mite-eye’s view of the universe starts feeling oppressive, When The Sun Hits… well, hits you like an Arctic sunrise, darkness banished in a swell of life-affirming light and heat. It’s the sort of revelatory one-two that musical mystics across the ages spend their lives chasing, executed to perfection.

But that’s not how the music press saw it, of course. Coming out at the height of the shoegaze backlash, the record was met with eviscerating reviews. Melody Maker’s Dave Simpson wrote that he “would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again”. Ouch. Problems with the band’s US label pushed its stateside release by eight months. Relationships within the band as well as with Creation Records became increasingly frayed. In later interviews, the band would remember one show, where they looked up from their instruments to see just a lone woman mopping the floor in front of them, as a sign that the end was near. One week after the release of their next album, 1995’s heavy-ambient Pygmalion, they were dropped by their label, seemingly destined to fade back into obscurity.

But Slowdive had created a timeless album in Souvlaki—timeless in the sense that it was a record out of time, existing in a liminal space untouched by trend or musical fashion. As the years passed, it found more and more adherents, the critical mauling it received only serving to reinforce its burgeoning reputation as a misunderstood masterpiece. Its influence can be heard in the post-rock of Mogwai and Sigur Rós, the dream-pop of pre-2010 M83 and the indie-rock of Beach House. Alongside 1991’s Loveless, it became a definitive record for shoegaze, a genre whose innovations in sound continued to reverberate across the intervening decades.

And yet, 30 years later, nobody has come close to replicating the perfection of Souvlaki, not even the band themselves (they reunited in 2014 and released a new self-titled record in 2017). It sounds just as pristine, as fresh and innovative today as when it first came out. Don’t believe me? Just go put it on and check for yourselves.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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