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In February, after nearly 22 years of delays, My Bloody Valentine released a follow-up to their genre-defining 1991 LP, Loveless. In light of that, it's tempting to declare 2013 the Year of the Shoegaze Revival.
There are signs all over: Coachella's lineup boasted fresh-faced dream-pop acts like DIIV, Wild Nothing, and White Arrows; a number of Pitchfork's "Best New Albums" feature gauzy, phased guitars straight out the Ride playbook; bands like M83, Beach House, and Deerhunter, daisy-chained guitar pedals in tow, are filling clubs all over the world.
"It's a great comeback story, isn't it?" says Brandon Capps, the man behind the Southwest's best (if only) underground shoegaze festival, Beautiful Noise. "Considering the stigma that used to be associated with being called 'shoegaze,' I'm amazed at how the term is embraced today. I count myself as one of those rabid fans that was obsessed with reading the reviews in NME and Melody Maker back in 1990."
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From 1993 to 1995, Southwestern bands united for shows at Beautiful Noise. This year the festival returns, celebrating its 20th anniversary. Though it hasn't been an annual event, the festival's history acts as a through line connecting two decades of blissful, spiraling pop.
This year, the celebration features young acts like Dead Leaf Echo, post-rockers Cassiopeia, and Tennis System along with veterans astrobrite (founded by songwriter Scott Cortez in Tucson in 1993), experimental act Dogshow (founded in Phoenix in the late '80s), and Capps' own Half String, whose '90s catalog was reissued in 2012 by Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. The venue, Hollywood Alley, holds its own special place in Southwestern shoegaze history.
"Half String played our very first show at Hollywood Alley in 1991," Capps says. "Early on, we didn't feel like we fit in with the Mill Ave or the Mason Jar scenes — Flying Burrito Bros. on one side, flying hair on the other — so we wanted to curate a lineup of bands that complemented each other, rather than just getting thrown onto a random bill.
"There were a handful of other bands that felt as we did, so it just made sense to program a night of live music. Ross Wincek was the only booker in town who would give us an entire night — and sometimes a weekend night at that. So, we've always felt welcome at The Alley. It's always a warm and homey vibe there, plus their sound system is super-loud."
Capps isn't surprised that younger bands like Dead Leaf Echo and Tennis System have found inspiration in old 4AD and Creation records, but he appreciates the bands' songcraft as much as their sonics. Shoegaze has always focused on aesthetic, but truly great bands get by on good songs, not just cool tones.
"What impresses me most about both of these bands is that great songs exist at the core of their 'revivalist' shoegaze sound," Capps says. "There are neatly organized layers of melody and movement that you rarely hear from the current wave. So many bands today can cop a great sound, but don't write interesting songs."
The "shoegaze revival" idea isn't new — after all, people have been using terms like "nu gaze" since the early 2000s. But Capps says the current appreciation for the genre feels genuine. Shoegaze is a niche market, but those looking for quality have even more options than before.
"Looking at the 'Top 100 Shoegaze' lists that show up on blogs, I'm reminded of just how many great records — shoegaze or not — were made in the '90s," Capps says. "There was so much creativity, innovation, and experimentation happening during that time that it's no wonder that a younger generation has dug it up and found value in the recordings of that era."