Shoegaze is a strange, beautiful, and utterly unique genre. Its name was originally coined as a pejorative by the British music press to describe a small group of London-based musicians who would stand motionless during performance and stare down at a multitude of pedals that created crushing waves of swirling, distorted sound from their guitars. The movement gained serious traction in the early nineties and resulted in some of the best pop music of the decade while more or less proving that noise can be as beautiful as it can be brutal. However, that bands today continue to make music under the shoegaze moniker seems a little bizarre to me. The genre’s dreamy, feedback-drenched aesthetic is so specific and beloved that bands who parade a list of influences as massive as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and The Jesus and Mary Chain seem to be voluntarily positioning themselves in the narrow shadows of such genre-defining monoliths as MBV’s Loveless or Ride’s Nowhere—pretty much a recipe for disaster. Despite such perils, Sounds of Sputnik (AKA Roman Kalitkin) stands proudly in said shadows in his debut release New Born. However, he undermines himself by veering between melodrama and mediocrity without ever really bringing the noize.
Most of the songs on New Born bear the minimal sonic trademarks of the genre Kalitkin claims to be working within: thickly distorted guitars; blurry, unintelligible female vocals; dense and brooding instrumental tracks that pan wildly from left to right. The strange part is that none of those components can be found in the same place and when they do appear, they’re slightly off or joined by some clumsy musical decisions. The title track, for instance, opens with a garish piano part reminiscent of a cheap JRPG soundtrack and proceeds to plod along with a blandly earnest guest vocal from Ukrainian collaborators Ummagma, who vastly overpower anything interesting that might be happening in the rest of the mix. “Light Scheme” is also marred by a lurid piano intro which is mercifully abandoned in favor of one of the album’s better arrangements; the mix is more balanced and Ummagma’s wistful melody line plays well against the hazy sweep of Kalitkin’s music. But not until the instrumental suite of “Blizzard” and “Shades of the Cosmos” do we get a taste for Kalitkin’s ability to craft sounds more immediately recognizable as “shoegaze.” “Blizzard” delivers on some long-awaited guitar crunch, but while the title might imply stormy sheets of feedback and distortion, the track is frustratingly sparse, leaving the solo guitar line to disintegrate almost unaccompanied. “Shades of the Cosmos” continues in a similar vein and is plagued with some truly dull arpeggiated guitar accompaniment and schlocky synth strings that steer the track toward mediocre post-rock. The only song that successfully combines all the elements Kalitkin has scattered throughout the album is on “Overdrive” which is easily the best song here. Guest drummer Graham Bonnar (a shoegaze veteran formerly of Swervedriver) brings some desperately needed nerve to the mix, and Kalitkin responds in kind by finally letting loose and bringing a host of shimmering guitars to the foreground. Throw in a spunky, hummable melody from Ummagma and you get a surprisingly good song in a batch of mostly duds.
One of the major problems with New Born is that it is seriously lacking in strong material–a fact highlighted by an excessive number of mostly forgettable remixes (there are as many remixes of the title track as there are original songs). But the album’s biggest flaw is its unwillingness to indulge in the sonic adventurousness that is such a beloved hallmark of the shoegaze genre. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize this music on the successes of its predecessors, but even examining New Born outside of the genre whose few masterpieces so easily eclipse it shows it to be a mostly clumsy collection of songs that rely too strongly on schmaltz to achieve anything beyond monotony and timidity.
Joshua Palmer is a writer, musician, and dilettante-about-town living in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated from Trinity University with a major in Wumbology, a minor in English, and did his Honors Thesis on the effects of listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds while crying in bed about stupid boys who don’t even deserve you. He does not have a twitter and apologizes to everyone for this.