There seems to be a full-on shoegaze revival in motion, with kingpins of the genre My Bloody Valentine releasing “m b v” in 2013, their first new album in 22 years, followed by a new album by Swervedriver and a box set by Lush in 2015. This year, there have already been new albums by Slowdive and Ride, two other bands that haven’t been heard from in over two decades. Pitchfork has also recently released their list of 50 best shoegaze albums of all time, a list with which I concur for a change. I imagine there will be (or are already!) other old bands making new records in the genre, and I’ll certainly be searching for them. It’s not because I’m nostalgic for the 1990s, though. Rather, it’s because I believe listening to shoegaze aids me on the path to total Buddhist enlightenment.
This bizarre claim is going to take some explaining. It all started when I was working the night shift at a radio station in Boston with the American composer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Steven Brooks. I was getting interested in Buddhism, and he recommended that I listen to the music of the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. Scelsi was, later in his life, a practitioner of Zen Buddhist meditation. His meditation practice and study of other Eastern religions led him to develop a method of composition that focused on a single note. His intention was to guide the listener inward through concentration on the sound itself. Indeed, when you’re hearing only one note, there’s little else to concentrate on (though John Cage, through HIS music, made sure we concentrated on those other things, too!).
A good, short example of Scelsi’s style is the orchestral piece “Quattro pezzi su una nota sola,” Scelsi’s most famous work, composed in 1959. It features 19 minutes of mostly a single note with microtonal fluctuations and ghostly overtones. Though other notes are included, they wind up drawing attention to the main note, to which they constantly return. It sounds harsh but is strangely calming, much like meditation itself.
Harsh, yet calming. Unless you’re an adept (and perhaps even then!), you can be sitting absolutely still in absolute silence and yet the inside of your head fills with noise: unclear thoughts, competing voices, and even an odd fuzz like bad reception on an old pre-digital TV as thoughts short-circuit, giving way to still more thoughts. Scelsi’s music reassured me that I wasn’t doing it wrong. It indicated that one had to focus on the sound, or the mind’s noise, in order to go further inward.
Shoegaze invites this kind of listening. With its muddied production, squalling guitars, lakes of reverb, and distant, indecipherable vocals, it reminded me of the inside of my head during meditation. Harsh, yet calming.
The greatest shoegaze album ever made is My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless,” released in 1991. The first few seconds of the opening track, “Only Shallow,” instantly blew me away. You hear the now-iconic three snare drum hits, followed by an explosion of guitar noise that sounds like every neuron in your brain lighting up at the same time. It’s so heavily layered that you hear different elements of the mix every time you change the speakers you’re listening on. In this way, it’s like your mind when you meditate. On a meta level, the same thoughts are always repeating, but you zoom in on, or “attach to”, different thoughts each time you meditate.
Then the vocals come in, distant and indecipherable. They sound far away, and you strain to make them out. They’re like the layer of calm below your thoughts, if only you can get beyond the noise. They’re high and sweet, inviting as a sugary treat. If you strain and try to understand them, it’s hopeless. It’s best to relax, back off a bit, and take in the entire sound. As in meditation.
Other shoegaze bands may have gentler approaches, but for me the effect is the same: I want to BECOME THE SOUND. Even if I’m not released into the Buddha mind in this lifetime, I feel that both Scelsi and shoegaze may be training me to better navigate the dangers of the bardo plane that Tibetans talk about, so I can be reborn into a life still more conducive to clearing the mind. If this is indeed the case, Kevin Shields should be made a saint!