This column highlights favorite genres, scenes and artists with the intent to make it quick and easy to get into them or decide if they’re ‘for you’. I’ll focus on obscure and/or prolific projects.
The huge (as I would argue, overblown) taboo surrounding the ‘chillwave’ sound left many talented groups like this forgotten. I’m thinking another reason for Keep Shelly was their silly name, and how their vocals and lyrics get cheesy. Still, I wound up endeared by this factor more than annoyed. This is shimmery water-fairy music at heart, and as long as you aren’t pulling an all-out ‘bananis and avocados’ with your voice, I won’t complain. These ‘fairies’ have soothing voices and fabulous scenery is everywhere, so I can’t help but enjoy the ride. Beyond that, they’re one of the most ambitious groups I’ve heard in this decade’s synth-dream pop genre/scene/thing.
Here’s the thing: KSIA never were your average ‘chillwavers’. Unlike this scene’s generic corners, Keep Shelly aren’t ones to rehash old ideas. It doesn’t boil down to some woozy synths and pale guitar tones from a nerd writing gushy love songs about his GF. Like Royksopp, they stay adventurous at the same time as having a ‘chill-out’ appeal. They vary a lot from the structures and influences you come to expect from this music. Not every experiment works, but I appreciate their ambition. Their one constant member RΠЯ decorates and transforms the songs as much as he wants (on lesser songs, maybe too much!). If this is chillwave, it’s a bold and shiny update. He has a great taste for expanding on chillwave’s water fixation, so give these songs a good listen if you fawn over aquatic sounds like I do!
1. “Cremona Memories” – In Love With Dusk, 2010
One running trope I love about KSIA is their taste for spontaneous ‘weirder’ or kitschy touches. This song has a throbbing sci-fi synth one moment (1:21), and a Tina Turner sample or vinyl scratch the next. Results will depend on how wild they are, but I love the way it expands songs like this. RΠЯ relies on a fairly simple groove here but throws everything he has over it to keep you engaged. KSIA don’t get too serious, and make things fun when they see fit.
2. “DIY” – Our Own Dream EP, 2011
Film scores aside, this has one of the most epic piano lines I know. A few chords and that’s it, but they play in such enormous and stomping fashion that it doesn’t matter. And those horns! Another great ‘what if’ move from KSIA.
3. “Flyway” – At Home, 2013
Relies on this one fluttery synth, but adds all these subtle riffs to bounce off of it and a weird yet awesome vocoder cameo. Another one where you have to ride the adrenaline rush. The best kind of repetition: purposeful, not too much, addictive, doesn’t take forever to evolve.
4. “Fractals” – Now I’m Ready, 2015
I don’t know, I have a soft spot for well-done wishy washy bittersweet pop songs. That is, if the right people make them, and of course Keep Shelly qualify. Really pleasant melodies, and the hopeful spirit is sweet. I love the way the chorus busts in with that Robin Guthrie guitar (guth-tar?) from the gentler verses. That little chiptune-y solo toward the end makes it even more satisfying.
5. “Hollow Man” – Now I’m Ready, 2015
This is where their ambition shines. The layers, the intensity, the oceanic textures, the twists, the synth soloing, it’s all there. You have break beats, gorgeous synths, windy vocal effects, huge build VS sad, hushed cooldown; vibraphone [!!!] fade-out… An exciting mixture in the end. Thumps like a thunder storm; when it’s music, that’s a good thing.
With The Banshees as my biggest gateway into my serious musical interests, I’ve had a fascination for gothic themes for many years now. As picky as I get with the goth rock/darkwave scenes, they generated and influenced several of my all-time favorite albums.
To coincide with this Halloween, I’ve decided to look back on five of my most formative gothic, autumnal and/or ‘spooky’ favorites. This is more about representing than building an exact top-5, so check out this related list and my Halloween mixes if you want more!
Lene Lovich – Shadows And Dust, 2005
Lene Lovich is new wave’s wacky witch of the west. Anyone familiar with her distinctive polka-dotted voice will know this already. Shadows And Dust is the lesser-known piece to the puzzle. Despite coming fifteen years after March, Lene sounds more witchy than ever. She tributes the Wicked One herself with all the right gleeful kitsch on track 9.
Mixing non-forced cabaret drama with speculative themes, SAD is a goth-pop wonderland. SAD plays like a natural step from where she left off, unfazed by time. It never lacks a new trick to show off, be it wispy synth bells (“Ghost Story”), viking-like backing vocals, a grim synth-string intro (“Remember”) or an elaborate Dracula narrative (“Insect Eater”). Altogether, it brings me back to Siouxsie’s Peepshow. With a bold sing-along and mutant arrangement, “Shapeshifter” makes a worthy “Peek-A-Boo” sequel.
Lene sings like she’s stirring a cauldron. Her voice wears a bit on louder sections, but I love her enthusiasm. Her wild-but-warm spirit hasn’t faded a bit, and her deeper, richer tone matches her themes. The sheer thrill she takes in voicing Reinfield on “Insect Eater” is nearly contagious. Sweeter moments like “Remember” show her knack for romance isn’t gone either.
Even beyond her ‘prime’, Lene had so much more to offer than “Lucky Number”. SAD is a major reason why; the limited release has me wishing more fans got to hear it.
Grimes – Halfaxa, 2010
Claire Boucher packed so many fresh creative instincts into such limited means early on. On oft-ridiculed Halfaxa, she channeled haunted cathedrals and medieval heirlooms from what many critics dismiss as the lowest dregs in music-making: Garageband. Albums like this make me question that dismissal.
It’s these same technical constraints that help make these songs so surreal and intriguing. Like many albums in this formative time for bedroom e-music, she’s alone with her thoughts here. As expected with a creative musical mind, it’s easy for me to get lost in them.
The songs create unique emotional portraits, both vague and pointed. “Devon”, for one, is a raw, rejected love song all the way, but with other highlights like ”Dream Fortress”, I detect so many different feelings at once. It’s sad nostalgia for that once-beautiful abandoned heirloom one minute and an erupting ghostly horror the next.
Halfaxa is a mind, a universe and a huge antique house. It thrives in surrealism and history’s shadows, but as other reviews have pointed out, you find very human feelings inside. Her devotion to Mariah Carey helped; she stated Halfaxa was her attempt to capture the spacious, haunting effects of group church singing. I know well these vocals can be a bit much with the echoes and caterwauls everywhere, but I would argue the cowgirl-punk approach on Art Angels is it’s own acquired taste.
Halfaxa is ethereal wave’s digital-age niece; any fan should try it.
Bauhaus – The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982
Bauhaus’ messiness was the main reason I was a ‘casual fan’ rather than obsessive. With that said, Sky’s Gone Out struck me as a glorious, thrilling mess if anything. Beyond “Exquisite Corpse”, the songs don’t lose their footing in shouty jam-outs. They had more ambitious ideas and the experience to pull them off by now. They were maturing though not leaving the captivating, surreal sense of darkness behind.
Sky’s Gone Out stands out further as the one Bauhaus album where they could pull a true ‘scare’ on me. For all the hammy drama leftover from Mask, this album allows itself to build a stronger atmosphere, one that belongs in bizarre nightmares out of an arthouse film. Sky’s Gone Out has it’s own black-and-white, surrealist world like the cover art.
Complete with piano and sax from a haunted house, “Spirit” isn’t punk as much as a wild, dancing chorus of ghosts. The “Three Shadows” trio is a journey in itself, going from quiet goth-tar disturbance to an underworld’s fairground waltz.
Despite everything, the album ends on a quiet, solemn note with “All We Ever Wanted”. It’s the gentlest song to the Bauhaus name. Peter’s fittingly spectral highs toward the end whirled around my head for years. Fun as songs like “Spirit” and “Bela Lugosi” get, it makes me wish Peter Murphy showed this vulnerable side more often.
Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels, 1983
Head Over Heels takes place in the mountains and towering caves of your mind. As the first ’normal’ Cocteau album, this invented ethereal wave as we know it and pioneered the 4AD sound. I’d argue shoegaze’s whole color-wash approach began around here too.
HOH is a thrilling display for Cocteau’s leftover goth roots in the more elemental context that would become their trademark. Liz Fraser’s voice settles a bit, sounding freer than ever as she belts, quivers and hums with equal strength. Her usual non-lyrics add to the enigma but her tone posesses incredible warmth and nobility here. The boldness in her delivery is surprising knowing her famous self-deprecation.
The spacious fuzz-guitar draws curiosity but insists to lurk in shadows. It’s a long, long gaze into said caves, where water drips quietly and huge sun rays peer inside. This is the moody, bewitching edge of nature in it’s full glory. It can be “Sugar Hiccup”’s candyland dream sequence or an intimidating divine beast emerging from it’s lair. What never fails to cast a spell on me is “Tinderbox Of A Heart”, a tie with “Fifty Fifty Clown” for my favorite CT song. it works like a travelogue for HOH’s world, where this mountain-cave turns out huge from the outside and all you can do is glare in awe.
Siouxsie And The Banshees – Peepshow, 1988
As the 33 1/3 book stresses, Peepshow emphasized SATB’s art-film interests. At this point, they were more a ‘goth pop’ group. Far from Juju’s raw impact, then, but resuming the moody elegance that graced Dreamhouse and Tinderbox. For each guitar you have ”Carousel”’s haunted circus organ, “Rhapsody”s chilly operatics and “Peek-A-Boo”‘s reversed orchestral blasts.
Martin McCarrick is the one who took the Banshees (further) beyond rock. Adding cello, accordion and other new flavors, he’s one of their most unique members. The result is the band’s last goth album, being a few years before “Kiss Them For Me”. As if predicting this change, they went all-out with it. Peepshow has all the thrill, variety and surrealism of the best goth music. Q gave this apt summary: ‘Peepshow takes place in some distorted fairground of the mind where weird and wonderful shapes loom’. In a parallel to Goldfrapp’s debut made in a cottage, they recorded these songs in a 17th century mansion. Siouxsie sounds like the suave and secretive ringleader in a freakshow. Songs like “Scarecrow” and “Rhapsody” showcase her refining flair for drama.
I learned of Cocteau when I overheard “Amelia” from my sister’s room. “Amelia” was interesting, but Liz Fraser’s singing baffled me at first. “That’s their whole style”, she said. This seemed too ‘weird’ for me. But that was when “Pandora” came on, which changed my mind the second it hit that chorus. Before I knew it I was obsessing over dream pop and all things ‘atmospheric’. Like the Banshees, CTs showed me an atmospheric density I hadn’t thought possible before.
The melody’s rapid syllables could become too much, but Fraser’s voice makes it sound easy and free. Add guitar wash from Atlantis and her most angelic falsetto and every note feels like a fountain. For all I knew, they were playing those drums from under a well.
“Pandora” is one of those rare songs with a therapeutic quality, where I wish I could take a nap in it. I pictured a happy-sad farewell in some aquatic world, where someone watches their friend journey off. It’s somewhere between this and the purest daydream.
Complex emotions like these are part of Treasure’s power. It will evoke such grand, sublime images and feelings across time and space, but never one at a time.
Originally written in Polish for Jan’s new music blog Anielskie Jajo. This is the first guest post I’ve featured here! I’m not sure how common this will be, but I’ll be open to more in the future.
About the guest author:
Jan (~shores on Rateyourmusic) is a musician and dedicated listener from Poland. We ‘met’ by chance in January when I answered his thread asking for recs in 80s new age. We had an immediate connection from there as we happened to share close opinions on several more genres like ambient, folk, pop and darkwave. Listen to Jan’s music here and here.
I. What is Ethereal Wave?
Ethereal Wave, or Ethereal Goth, or just Ethereal, is a music genre that is a variation on gothic rock and darkwave, transcending the dark imagery of said genre into denser, dreamier environments.
What’s more, you can say some bands playing “ethereal” sounding music who aren’t a part of goth scene could be called ethereal wave. Commonly the genre is applied to music that is related to gothic rock, but still a bit different. Lots of ethereal wave bands don’t play goth rock with female vocals (there’s a misconception that all goth rock bands with female vocals are ethereal), but uses certain means of expression that make the genre stand out from the goth scene – such as sparse, delicate guitar layers with lots of effects, soaring vocals (some using glossolalia), drum machines, and sometimes synths or keyboards.
II. Short history of genre
While lots of bands not affiliated with the goth scene today could be classified as ethereal, the style was born on goth rock and darkwave influences. The first half of the 80s brought us classic bands such as The Cure, The Banshees and Bauhaus. We could say that ethereal wave was born as a reaction to the murky and suffocating atmosphere exhibited in music of those bands (not to say it’s a reaction to ONLY those bands, just the scene at the time).
4AD was the primary powerhouse that made the genre happen – with bands like early Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, and This Mortal Coil, the genre had a nice headstart. But it didn’t have a name yet, and it wasn’t established yet – music press just tried to classify the music played by those bands, and “ethereal” was probably the closest, and it possibly stuck. It was rather an unspoken artistic movement.
The second half of the 80s brought fame to the genre: Cocteau Twins had indie hits with singles like “Carolyn’s Fingers” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas”, while This Mortal Coil became somewhat legendary with “Song To The Siren” and released highly acclaimed albums. But it was Dead Can Dance who actually migrated to neoclassical and regional music-inspired sounds with goth undertones, today known as neoclassical darkwave (Genre Primers post soon!).
That was the ethereal wave scene in the UK. In United States, the genre was popularised by Projekt Records – a bit of an American version of 4AD, but they had their own aesthetic and credo. Bands such as Black Tape for a Blue Girl, Love Spirals Downwards, or Lycia were the most popular pupils of said label.
In the end of the 80s and the early 90s, the genre regained some popularity, and several new bands were formed. Unfortunately, the genre went out of fashion rather quickly after that – it could be said that Cocteau Twins’ last album (1996) in marks the end of the genre’s popularity. Yet still: bands affiliated with the scene were experimenting with the sound and expanding it’s influences, sometimes incorporating electronics into their work – notably Chandeen and Love Spirals Downwards.
Today the genre has a small yet faithful fanbase, and – what is really nice to see for me – there are more bands appearing who play in such style.
Finally, this is how the ‘official’ EW looks. ‘Unofficial’ ethereal wave can be found in early 80s new age records and some non-goth artists, but it’s up to you if you feel it’s okay to call non-goth artists ethereal wave or not.
feathers oar-blades – cocteau twins / ocean – dead can dance / rains on me – heavenly bodies / cranes fly – black rose / birds of passage – bel canto / wish – soulswirlingsomewhere / scatter january – love spirals downwards / sparks – faith and the muse / mr. somewhere – this mortal coil / beneath the leaves – requiem in white / drifting – lycia / ecdisis – wind atlas / floor – them are us too / feral love – chelsea wolfe
A mix inspired by the music & visuals of the Moomin universe with folksy, sweet, calm, pastoral and thoughtful moods. Ranges from misty folk songs to gentle new age; featuring twinkling keyboards and pseudo-classical/chamber elements (woodwinds, harp, strings).
Featuring music from Moomin Voices (a recording of songs written by Moomin creator Tove Jansson), the 90s anime OST, the 1980 puppet show OST, 4AD and more!
mumintrollet’s visa tove jansson, johanna grussner & mika pohjola / aikea-guinea cocteau twins / antarctica echoes vangelis / bordeaux durrutti column / rozo, du pecoj world standard / kun ha minami he sumio shiratori / vite, petite fille david snell / parachute area / thibault et l’arbre d’or emmanuelle perranin / silver chord jane weaver / glad glasser / most unusual graeme miller & steve shill / icebow delicate features / open sequences a vision of panorama / i’ll read you a story + push the boat onto the sand colleen / le reflet dans l’eau train fantome / the dancer linda perhacs / lily of the valley brian bennett / february milan pilar / eternal garden ray russell / soft spring paul williams
I am LIVING for Tamaryn’s current aesthetic – glowing, pastel colors, moons (I mean hey, it’s my namesake here) and elegant gothic wardrobe + make-up. It’s like the good parts of the excellent Cranekiss album’s visual style but more colorful and ambitious.
I don’t love the song quite as much to be honest. I think it’s a big improvement from “Fits of Rage”, where she tried a little too hard to be Gritty and Angry in her delivery, but this song too has a few awkward vocal elements, albeit not as severe. I do think the backing music itself has a lot of potential. Hoping it will grow on me. UPDATE: Sure enough it did, and it didn’t take long to do so! Very blissful and catchy.