The Ethereal Ambience of Shoegaze and Dream Pop

Artwork by Liz Benjamin

Artwork by Liz Benjamin

by Emily Bunn

Dream pop is an experimental offshoot of pop music, characterized by hazy reverb, delay pedals, and guitar synthesizers. Dream pop has an ambient, white, dreamy sound to it that creates an ethereal, heavenly feeling. The genre is inspired by post-punk, 60s psychedelic rock, goth rock, indie, ambient, and of course, pop. Dream pop bands typically have female vocalists or a male-female vocalist duo. The emergence of dream pop can be attributed in large part to the Velvet Underground, George Harrison, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The use of repetition in the Velvet Underground’s sound and the fluid arrangement of song composition in George Michael’s 1970 album All Things Must Pass are both characteristic of the dream pop genre. Some of the most influential dream pop bands in the genre’s history include Lush, Cocteau Twins, and Verve. The melodic, haunting vocals coupled with dreamy distorted instrumentation create the ethereal, experimental sound of dream pop.

Shoegaze is related to dream pop but has a more abstracted sound. Shoegaze first emerged in the UK during the late 1980s, with the rise of groups such as Sonic Youth and noise rock groups. The genre was dubbed “shoegaze” because of the artists involving with the genre were constantly gazing down at their shoes, where an array of guitar pedals would inevitably be displayed to give each band the distorted, reverberated shoegaze sound. The deep concentration the artists put into creating the signature shoegaze sound is undoubtedly translated to listeners in the meditative, heavy saturation of the music. The textural difference between shoegaze and dream pop is evident in the heavier, noisier, more powerful guitars and distorted sound. The instruments are more atmospheric than in dream pop, often continuing for a stretch of time with no vocals over top of them. While elements such as synthesizers and reverb are still commonly utilized in this type of music, shoegaze sounds harsher, grainier and grungier than dream pop. However, both genres are very experimental in their sound, and shoegaze can go from sounding like old psychedelic rock to electronic music. The vocals in shoegaze are less pronounced than in dream pop and are treated more like instruments than the forefront, focus of shoegaze sounds. Some of the most notable shoegaze bands include Ride, Curve, Slowdive, Mazzy Star, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. My Bloody Valentine, in particular, has a song called “All I Need” that astutely represents shoegaze in its heavily distorted sound, hazy vocals, and crushingly loud guitars. The washed out, fuzzy sound creates an alluring, almost hypnotic attraction to this track. Shoegaze is encapsulating and ethereal; listening to it feels otherworldly and puts listeners in a trance.

Together, shoegaze and dream pop have created a plethora of other experimental sub-genres. For example, bands like Trautonist are the result of combining shoegaze and black metal, also known as “black gaze”. Both genres have inspired the use of exaggerated synths and reverb in rock music, which created a more ambient sound and led to new releases in post-rock. While shoegaze emerged in the 1980s and remained popular until the early 1990s, the popularization of Britpop by bands like Oasis nearly diminished the shoegaze genre. However, in the 2000s, bands like M83 and Crystal Castles created a new wave of shoegaze music- appropriately dubbed, “newgaze”, as especially evident in Crystal Castle’s 2012 album, (III). My Bloody Valentine’s seventeen-year long awaited 2013 release “MVB”, as well as Slowdive’s recent self-titled album release in 2017, have brought the frontrunners of the forgotten shoegaze scene back into the spotlight. Some more recent dream pop and shoegaze bands making music today include Beach House, Whirr, Cigarettes After Sex, Beach Fossils, and Salvia Palth. The revival of both genres in recent years can be attributed to both genre’s correlation to today’s counterculture. Many bands from the late 80s and 90s are making a comeback as young audiences today look back to the past for musical inspiration. The “outsider” atmosphere created by the loud, bleak instrumentation in both genres plays into the edgy, rebellious youth culture of today. The appeal of shoegaze and dream pop both lie in their immersive, cinematic sound that creates an almost meditative, dream-like state in listeners. Check out Swervedriver, Deafheaven, or Nothing and dive into the mesmerizing trance of these genres.

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