Swervedriver - Raise

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:1991-09-30
Swervedriver - Raise
Swervedriver - Raise

There are three tiers to shoegaze. The top tier universally consists of only three bands – My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride – usually in that order of importance. Most shoegaze addicts list those three bands as the pioneers of the genre, even if the Jesus & Mary Chain created the genre unexpectedly with Psychocandy, these purveyors of style created the first official wave of the gaze. The third tier is largely composed of imitators and revivalists capitalizing on a very niche genre – Nothing, A Place to Bury Strangers, etc. The largest section is Tier 2, the bands that came after the holy trinity hit big – Lush, Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel, Swirlies, and Swervedriver (among several others).

Shoegaze was birthed in the European countries in the 80s and 90s, while it never hit big across the pond until the revivalists made it “cool” again in the early 2000s. Hailing from England, Swervedriver were less MBV, more Ride as far as aesthetic. Infusing their gaze with alt-rock tendencies, making them an easier pill to swallow than the dreaminess of Ride or the ear-splitting of MBV. The Swerve were the first with major American appeal, as their sound fit snugly into mainstream rock radio easily. And while many of the other shoegaze acts to come from the 90s faded just as quickly as they sprung up, Swervedriver were in for the long haul, producing four underrated classics in their wake.

“Underrated” is the best word to describe Swervedriver. Melding college rock and indie rock acts like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, Raise debuted in 1991 and showed crossover appeal thanks to a dedicated following from their previous EPs. “Sci-Fi Flyer” kicks things off in rapid-fire motion, thrusting furiously with feedback and distortion, but not the bleeding style of MBV, instead, more in tune with their American counterparts like the Pixies or even Bleach-era Nirvana. It takes a near 90 seconds before we even get vocals, and they are crisp and clear, something non-fans of the genre complain about with MBV and Ride.

Grungy with apathy to comparisons, Raise moves between its hard-rocking anthems like any 90s classic would. Bolstered by the homogenous vocals of Adam Franklin, “Son of Mustang Ford” typifies the band as a Foo Fighters level arena-rock, and it lead to the band touring the United States in support of mega-giant rockers Soundgarden in 1992. Powerful, driving guitars screech all over the place – “Mustang” established Swervedriver as a force to be reckoned with, pummeling audiences’ eardrums on all fronts; percussion wise Graham Bonner start-stops the intensity on one of the most well-known cuts by the band.

The only drawback to “Raise” lies within its own message. Whereas Isn’t Anything and Loveless sound nothing alike, a majority of Swervedriver’s work sounds the same. Two years after Raise Swervedriver would release Mezcal Head, an album that many (including myself) consider the superior album – if only for the fact that their songwriting is tighter. “Deep Seat” is six minutes of the same old noise that seems to just be taking up space on the album, and while “Rave Down” realigns focus with another punchy hard rock gem, the rest of the album starts to blend together if not for the fade-outs.

“Sandblasted” tries to introduce some more pop elements but only half succeeds before spiraling into muddy territories with its showcasing – again – of Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge’s shredding talents, ad nausea. To the non-assimilated, this is daunting, and only offers a brief gasp of air before drowning you again. These aren’t awful tendencies, but they do distract from Swervedriver’s best qualities – namely their talent for melding shoegaze and mainstream rock together. Raise finishes on a high point though, “Lead Me Where You Dare” by dropping things down a bit and taking a chapter out of Ride’s playbook and offering up a smooth and weightless sensation before drifting away.

Raise is messy, intentionally, but messy nonetheless and it offers a sneak peek into what Swervedriver was capable of going forward. It’s a statement of intent – most shoegaze bands didn’t have the intuition to write something accessible for the times. There was a boom in the 90s as indie acts like Pavement and Built to Spill were signing promising contracts and putting out classic after classic. Swervedriver were swept up in this, but the band didn’t have the longevity of the others and by the end of the decade faded into obscurity. The fortunate side of this is that the internet helped spark interest in these lesser known or forgotten bands like Swervedriver and this lead to a reunion in the late 2000s, and an eventual (and surprisingly solid) fifth album in 2015.

Swervedriver’s greatest weakness is also their most prominent strength. The repetition of their sound helped build a career, and they managed to hold the fort down during the 90s as other shoegaze acts became flustered (MBV), transitioned out of the genre (Ride), or just quit altogether (Drop Nineteens). The shelf-life of shoegaze was never intended to be very long, even if it remains to this day a popular sub-genre of rock. Still, Swervedriver were a prime example of what can happen when a band can maintain their sound successfully over the years, and never give into the pressure of label executives. Over time their sound became slightly more accessible, but the elements of shoegaze remained even after they were put out to pasture in 1998. It’s by no means a perfect album, but a solid jumping off point for a band who categorically were just jumping on a hype train. Better things were still to come from them, and despite those flaws, Raise is a good (and necessary) jumping off point for anyone looking to progress their shoegaze knowledge.

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