Even though digital technology has long been an important part of my life – I was a Computer Science major in college and bought my first Mac in 1984 – I was slow to fully embrace the transition from physical to digital music. Even after I got an iPod, and mp3’s became my primary mode of listening, most of my music purchases were still physical CDs. It was really hard to let go of those shiny, polycarbonate discs… But eventually I took the plunge, and now physical purchases are limited to very special items or releases that don’t come in downloadable format. And as my buying patterns have changed, my listening patterns have also changed – I’m less likely listen through a whole album in a single sitting, so an EP release often ends up being a perfect-sized chunk of new music.
I’ve always liked the EP format, particularly when artists have used it to create complete short-form musical statements (as opposed to just throwing together a few spare tracks that had nowhere else to go) – see, for example, Cocteau Twins’ Aikea-Guinea, Boards of Canada’s In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, Sugar’s Beaster, or any of the early releases from Lush or Slowdive. In the new world of digital distribution, EPs (and stand-alone singles) have proven to be a great option for independent artists who are free to create and release a strong, cohesive collection of four or five songs (or two or three or six) on their own schedule without record label pressure to fulfill an album contract. As a result, some of the best music I’ve heard in recent years has come from EPs. Some Shoegaze (and Shoegaze-ish) highlights from 2014 included Blush Response’s Telltale and Dead Air, Wozniak’s Pikes Peak, Hot Glass’ Melted and Only Animals, Tuques’ slushpuppie, and King Woman’s Dove/Fond Affections.
Two thirds of the way through 2015, there are quite a few EPs holding places among my favorite releases of the year, and I thought I’d share some of them here. The focus is on Shoegaze and related styles, but there are great EPs coming out across all genres.
Wozniak – Auster
After their Pikes Peak EP turned up on a lot of best-of-2014 lists, hopes were high for Wozniak’s follow-up, and Auster doesn’t disappoint. It’s a mature and accomplished work that presents a band becoming increasingly confident in themselves and competent at their craft. The production on Auster is top-notch, and the whole thing sounds great. Wozniak straddles the intersection of Post-Rock, Shoegaze, and Dream Pop, and the EP shows us all sides of the band’s sound. “Snow Effect” kicks things off in gorgeous style and features this collection’s only vocal track. “Wings of Pegasus” is propelled a jaunty, rollicking beat, and “Gospel of Infinity” uses a spare, jangling chord as a skeleton on which the band builds up and pares away some monumental slabs of meaty guitar. The eight-minute “Hester + Zelda” starts off chiming and ethereal, but gradually builds to a noisy climax and gentle denouement that form an ideal finish to such a dynamically diverse EP.
Jaguwar – I EP
German Shoegaze/Noisepop three-piece Jaguwar formed in 2012 and they’ve played gigs supporting bands like Tamaryn, We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Yuck. Their debut release, I EP, immediately had me looking forward to hearing more from them. The band’s website describes their search for a “soundshape which is blended by walls of guitars but even sparkled with sweet purple stars” and their investment in “My Bloody Valentine vinyls”, and while the MBV influence is clear, the band has used it to carve out their own special sound rather than just mimicking the original. “Breathe Bullets Which Taste Like Pure Fruit”, “Lower”, and “Muffhead” meld the buzzsaw guitars of MBV’s “You Made Me Realize” with the warped textures of Isn’t Anything and Loveless to create a gorgeously bracing sonic storm laced with both male and female vocals. EP closer “Wendy” rounds out the quartet of tracks with five minutes of drifting distortion and distant vocalization that bring a serene end to a captivating adventure in noise.
King Woman – Doubt
King Woman singer/songwriter Kristina Esfandiari was formerly a member of Shoegaze standouts Whirr, and she’s taken the move to a new band as an opportunity to embrace a dark, powerful, and cathartic sound. Esfandiari has spoken of her songs’ genesis in consciousness-exploring experiments with psychedelic drugs and her quest to dispel the dysfunctional effects of an oppressive religious upbringing. That may sound like a recipe for music that could be either awkwardly personal or inaccessibly abstract, but the four tracks on Doubt strike a perfect balance, pairing Esfandiari’s passionate, emotive vocals with lyrics that are concrete enough to be relatable but ambiguous enough that listeners can infuse them with their own personal meaning. Rolling Stone called the sound a cross between Mazzy Star and Black Sabbath… I wouldn’t say that Mazzy Star comes to mind when I hear it, but there’s definitely a heavy guitar element that shows some metal influence…Doomgaze, perhaps? Fans of Chelsea Wolfe’s recent Abyss would do well to check this one out.
Forevr – Demonstration
There has been a lot of great Shoegaze coming out of Australia in the past couple years, and Brisbane duo Forevr is a welcome addition to the lineup. On the Demonstration EP – which was recorded live – Donovan Miller fuzzes, distorts, and warps guitar sounds over programmed beats while Sam George-Allen’s beautiful vocals float at various levels through the mix. It sounds a bit like what I imagine a collaboration between Kevin Shields and Liz Fraser might produce – and that’s definitely a compliment! It’s hard to pick a standout track because I like them all, but I think lead-off “Yucatan” is a good intro that really captures that My Bloody Cocteaux vibe. Forevr is one of my favorite new music discoveries of the year, and I’m very eager to hear what they come up with next.
93mmfts have had a busy year. In addition to the superb Fall Into Nothing full-length, the band has released three EPs. Watch Her Fall pairs one of the standout tracks from the album with three additional songs (including “Fall Into Nothing”, which didn’t make it onto the album with which it shares its name). The newly released Nothing Left Inside presents its title track in slightly longer form than the album version (where it blends into the tracks before and after it), and also adds three additional cuts. In the case of both EPs, the extra songs aren’t just studio throwaways – they’re solid works that stand up proudly alongside those on the album. The name-your-price Ride EP features three covers of tracks by the titular Shoegaze legends, including a standout 9-minute version of “Vapour Trail”. Speaking of covers, here’s hoping that someday we’ll get an official release of their excellent remake of The Boo Radley’s “Kaleidoscope”!
Airs / Nevermind Me – Airs & Nevermind Me
This split release between San Francisco five-piece Airs and London five-piece Nevermind Me showcases contrasting sides of both bands. Note that the playing order of the tracks differs according to whether you download them from the Airs Bandcamp page or the Nevermind Me Bandcamp page. Personally, I like the Airs-first version, which works as a sort of musical palindrome, sandwiching two mellower songs between the noisier faire that we’re used to from these bands. Played in this order, the EP starts out with the loud and fuzzy track “Pretty Sure” from Airs and follows that with the beautifully wistful instrumental “Fade”. Nevermind Me then takes their turn with the gently haunted longing of “Cinema” and then closes out the EP with the heavier sound of “Lose You”. It’s a nice introduction to both bands and hopefully gives folks some incentive to explore their catalogs further.
SPC ECO – Smile
With former Curve member Dean Garcia driving the music, while his daughter Rose Berlin handles vocal duties, SPC ECO is a band with a strong Shoegaze pedigree. And the prolific duo’s early output, such as 2013’s Sirens and Satellites, shared Curve’s affinity for marrying beauty and noise. But on their more recent output, Garcia and Berlin have explored new sonic directions. On 2014’s The Art of Pop, the band left the guitars in the studio closet and moved to a more electronic sound. The guitars have come back on subsequent releases, but the overall approach is still more of a haunting Noir Electropop than Shoegaze (as illustrated on this year’s captivating full-length Dark Matter. The Smile EP starts off with “Out Of My System”, which features Berlin’s slinky vocals gliding across some pleasantly Curve-flavored instrumentation. The song was stuck in my head for weeks after I first heard it, and it’s one of my favorite tracks of the year. It’s followed by the title track and another new song, plus two remixes of “Out Of My System”. If you like this, check out their “Feel Me” single, which is another of my 2015 faves.
Vanessa van Basten – Disintegration EP
I’d not heard of Italy’s Vanessa van Basten before I ran across this EP, so it was an unexpected surprise. The four tracks are covers of selections from The Cure’s Disintegration (which is among my all-time top 10 or 15 albums), and although these reinterpretations don’t stray radically far from the originals, they do add a bit more guitar and fuzz, which is always a plus in my book. The song titles have been tweaked as well – “Closedown” is now “Doseclown”, for example. The EPs best track is “Plainbong” (from the original “Plainsong”) which augments the remake’s heavier, fuzzier atmospheres with pitch-shifted vocal reverb that gives the song a slightly darker and more ominous feel than The Cure’s version.
(Twitter tags [where available]: @band_wozniak, @jaguwarmusic, @TheFlenser [King Woman’s Label], @thebandforevr, @93_MMFTS, @airsmusic, @nevermindmeband, @SPCECO)