Slowdive – Souvlaki (1993)

BACKGROUND

Slowdive is a British band that is considered to be one of the forerunners of the Shoegaze genre. Shoegaze is a genre that I have been aware of since 2014 due to one of my friends listening to it a lot. I never really gave the genre a chance until this year. My own introduction to Shoegaze actually came via the sub-genre Blackgaze (a combination of Black Metal and Shoegaze) and the French pioneers of that sub-genre: Alcest.

After seeing Alcest live in Stockholm this year (pre-Covid 19 restrictions) I decided to give their album Shelter (2014) a chance. I had been apprehensive about that album because I knew it wasn’t a Blackgaze album, but instead a pure Shoegaze/Dream Pop album. After having listened to Shelter and liking it, I decided to give real old-school Shoegaze a chance, and so I came into contact with Slowdive and their album Souvlaki. As a side note, main songwriter and singer of Slowdive, Neil Halstead, sang the song “Away” on Shelter.

Brian Eno, one of the biggest forerunners of the ambient genre, was brought in to help with a few songs on Souvlaki. In theory, the combination of Shoegaze sound with touches of ambient music sounds really good. In practice, it’s a match made in heaven. Even though Eno only appears on two songs, his influence can be heard throughout the album.

Souvlaki was released in 1993 in their native U.K. and in 1994 in the U.S.

Cover art

The cover art is just a picture of the band, and honestly, that’s totally fine with me. It doesn’t need to be anything more in this genre. The introspective and emotional nature of the music lends itself to a band photo, highlighting the human connection.

Members of Slowdive

Neil Halstead: Vocals & guitar

Rachel Goswell: Vocals & guitar

Christian Savill: Guitar

Nick Champlin: Bass

Simon Scott: Drums

Brian Eno: Keyboards & treatments on “Sing” and “Here She Comes”

Produced by Slowdive

Spotify link to the album:

Alison

(Halstead)

“Alison” is Pop-perfection with Shoegaze trappings. It’s absolutely perfect.

“Alison” was the first Slowdive song I heard and I instantly fell in love with the hazy and fuzzy soundscape of this song. Hazy and fuzzy are two words I would use to describe the sound of Shoegaze. Other words I would use are; “underwater”, “floating” and a sensation of “numbness”.

This song is the perfect soundtrack to going back to college in late August/ early September. When I hear this song, I can feel the cool air of late summer/ early autumn and the warmth of the last rays of sunshine from the summer hit my face.

“Alison” is probably the most commercial-sounding song on the album, which may be seen as a bad thing in general by some people. However, this may also be the best song on the album. It’s definitely in the top 3 for me.

The second verse features a more prominent rotary guitar sound.

The way the song fades away in fuzzy guitar noise is a stroke of genius. It fits the mood of the song perfectly and I still get goose bumps every time I hear the outro, even though I’ve heard the song many times now.

“Alison” is unique in the way that it makes you feel melancholic, at ease and empty all at once. The mood of the song (and most of the album actually) can be summed up with a lyric from the first chorus: “There’s nothing here but that’s ok”.

Machine Gun

(Halstead)

“Machine Gun” is a very calming song, especially in the verses. The verses feature Goswell singing, and though she has a nice voice it’s hard to understand what she’s singing. This is due to the fact that there is a lot of reverb on all audio tracks as well as the fact that she sings in a high register.

Not understanding what’s being sung does however not hurt the overall feeling of the song, which is soothing in the verses and reflecting in the chorus. The chorus is in a minor key and is more stripped back than the verse and features an acoustic guitar and Halstead’s vocals.

The soundscape of the song is beautiful, and I love the way the verses and choruses have different feelings and slightly different aesthetics. I would describe this song as the audio version of what it feels like when you’re floating on your back in the ocean, ears under water and the sun shining on you.

40 Days

(Halstead)

“40 Days” took some time for me to get into, and it’s probably my least favourite song on the album. I have however warmed up to it lately.

The song sounds like it’s right on the cusp of Halstead’s vocal range: 1 semitone lower and it would not have worked. Maybe he should have played it in a higher key, but that would perhaps be counterproductive to the overall feeling of the song, and maybe it was the only key that Halstead and Goswell could sing in together (she joins in on vocals on the second verse).

The guitar textures and “noise” after the choruses and towards the end of the song are very nice.

Sing

(Slowdive/Brian Eno)

Sing starts with some ambient electronic noises and what sounds like a very processed guitar sound. It would not surprise me if Eno had a large hand in writing/constructing the intro of this song.

Drums and bass enter and play a slow and steady groove. Goswell’s vocals then enter, almost as an ethereal whisper. As the song goes on, more ambient noises and guitar noises enter.

“Sing” has a tranquil and underwater feeling to it. Listening to it is like going into a trance or floating and dreaming in an underwater environment.

Here She Comes

(Halstead)

“Here She Comes” features a guitar with what sounds like a tremolo effect, a bass, hand percussion and Halstead’s vocals.

This is a standout track on this album in that it doesn’t have that “wall of sound” like the previous songs do (and almost all Shoegaze songs). It sounds very close and intimate and has perhaps the prettiest chord sequence of all the songs on Souvlaki. The stripped down and close atmosphere makes it sound like Halstead is sitting in your living room playing just for you.

It’s also a standout track because you can easily hear the lyrics. Even though the lyrics are kind of a downer in the beginning, the music of the song adds some levity to the album after “40 Days” and “Sing”.

This is another one of my favourite songs on the album.

Souvlaki Space Station

(Slowdive)

“Souvlaki Space Station” (weird song title by the way) is the longest song on the album. The song starts with a few guitar chords and guitar effects. Drums and bass then enter as the guitar chords and effects continue playing. Goswell’s vocals then enter, floating on top of the dream-like backing track.

Musically, the band is vamping over a major key 2-5 chord sequence which is quite common in Jazz and Bossa Nova music. Simply put, if you’re in the key of C major, the C major will be the 1-chord (the root), the 2-chord will be a D minor chord (because the D is the 2nd of the C) and the 5-chord will be a G major chord (because G is the 5th of C).

This song feels like it evolved from a jam session. There is plenty of reverb on all the instruments (even the bass and drums) giving the song a very big sound.

Towards the end of the song, the effects slowly drop off until all that’s left are the drums, bass and a guitar. The song ends with the sound of guitar feedback.

When the Sun Hits

(Halstead)

The intro and verse are musically similar. This song has that “album centrepiece” feeling.  The chorus comes in with a drum fill and guitar noise.

My initial thoughts on this song were that it was simply ok. These thoughts have changed over time, and I can see that this is one of the best songs on the album. This song, along with “40 Days”, is a song that I have grown to appreciate more as time goes on. It sits very neatly in the middle of the album and, along with “Alison”, is one of the more Pop/Rock sounding tracks.

Altogether

(Halstead)

“Altogether” is a very peaceful and soothing song. There is something Beatle-esque about the chord progression and the slightly hazy, psychedelic atmosphere of the song. Everything about the song is very understated: the vocals, the guitars, the drums and even the guitar effects/ noise.

This is definitely another favourite song on the album for me.

Melon Yellow

(Halstead)

“Melon Yellow” fades in quietly with a very slow bass and drum groove. Halstead’s hazy vocals then enter in the first verse. The chorus features a major key 2-5 chord progression, just like “Souvlaki Space Station”.

Just like “Altogether”, this song is soothing and hazy. Overall, the atmosphere of the song reminds me of U2’s song “4th of July” from The Unforgettable Fire (1984) which Brian Eno actually co-produced.

Dagger

(Halstead)

“Dagger” starts with the sound of a high note played on a piano. An acoustic guitar then enters strumming two chords. Halstead’s vocals enter and a high note on a piano can be heard faintly in the background. Vocal harmonies are introduced in the bridge and chorus.

Just like “Here She Comes”, “Dagger” is stripped down and sounds more intimate than the rest of the songs.

Lyrically and musically, this song ends the album on a melancholy note. The music is very beautiful and poignant, which fits the lyrics perfectly.

Production

The production is very much a classic Shoegaze sound. What that means is guitars with lots of effect pedals adding reverb, delay, chorus among other things. The vocals are also usually treated with similar effects, giving them a hazy, dream-like quality. Drums and bass are to a lesser extent treated with effects, meaning that they ground the songs, allowing the vocals and guitars to soar and float.

Final thoughts

The album is filled with strong hooks and melodies, gorgeous atmosphere and beautiful sound.

Many of the song’s lyrics are melancholic and sad. Despite that, it’s the kind of album I see myself returning to as the atmosphere is beautiful.

Souvlaki is considered to be one of the classics from the Shoegaze genre. As I explained earlier, my introduction to Shoegaze came via Blackgaze, but I would say that Souvlaki is a better introduction to the genre as it has a good balance of strong hooks and pure Shoegaze atmosphere.

My favourite moments on the album are “Alison”, “Machine Gun”, “Sing”, “Here She Comes” and “Altogether”. However, each song has something to offer, and I can strongly recommend this album to anyone who likes dreamy music with a lot of atmosphere. This album has certainly stirred my interest in Slowdive and Shoegaze in general, and I will further explore their catalogue of music as well as the whole genre!

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