Snorecore- an appreciation
Jeff Penczak (August 1998)In an otherwise darkened room, you sit cross-legged on the floor in front of a warm, crackling fireplace. You're surrounded by an assortment of well-lit objects: scented candles...Tiffany lamps...yourself. Across from you in a similar mental state, your significant other beams in anticipation as (s)he fills the wine goblets. You peruse your CD collection, mind racing with possibilities. You've satisfied Dr. Leary's requirements for set, setting and partner. You're ready.
This article is intended as a guide for your musical journey, an attempt to relieve the pressure of the traffic jam in your head over what to play next and how to keep things moving smoothly towards the evening's logical, agreed-upon conclusion. Whether you and your partner achieve enlightenment, orgasm, the "next plateau" of your relationship or all of the above, ultimately one thing's for certain: eventually both of you will find yourselves drifting into unconsciousness - the body/mind's natural state of enlightenment, i.e., sleep. Hence, the term I've chosen for this evening's musical "trip" is "Snorecore."
Placing a stake in the ground and selecting the genesis of this subchapter in the "new psychadelia" section of your musical encyclopedia is, as with all other genres, difficult (if not impossible.) Some may point to the mellower, quieter Velvet Underground selections (mostly sung by Nico), while others have nominated Steve Reich's non-rock experiments and still others say it all began with Eno's pre-ambient solo efforts. (Whether "new age" music derived from his ambient work is another article altogether.) Other terms for this genre, "shoegazers", "sadcore", "emocore" and "slowcore" suggest a more recent development with origins in Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine or, earlier still with The Cure's "suicide trilogy," Faith, Seventeen Seconds and Pornography or the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance's premiere efforts. Siouxsie's Join Hands also can't be overlooked, which leads many to view this as an offshoot of the Gothic movement. In this view, Bauhaus has to be considered. Others insist it's Bowie's Low that started it all. This requires one to consider the whole "Krautrock" movement as an inspiration. Many bands I'm about to discuss probably listened to most (if not all) of these sounds when they were growing up, so any combination of the above influences can comfortably be given at least partial credit for Snorecore.
I'll leave the battle in the hands of musicologists. They're more concerned with where we came from, musically speaking. This piece is more concerned with where we've arrived and where we're going. One thing I think we can all agree upon is that a definite movement/genre/style has arrived and, with a proliferation of recent releases in the 90s, deserves an analysis, understanding and critical evaluation. I'm going to limit my overview to artists who, having selected this genre, have chosen to continue releasing music within its umbrella.
Let's describe some of the characteristics of Snorecore. One thing most artists have in common is an appreciation of what Brian Eno has referred to in his excellent 1995 diary A Year with Swollen Appendices as "starting on a musical landscape to develop a sense of emotional place." (You can see here where the alternate term "emocore" came from.) In other words, they accept (and incorporate into their compositions) the importance of space, the "sounds of silence" if you will, as opposed to the Spectorish "wall of sound." The influence of "krautrock" in this regard is neatly established. (Nowhere is this more apparent than on Low's hidden track on their Transmission EP, a 14 minute-plus epic that literally begins with over five minutes of silence!)
Snorecore is very tactile music and, I think Lawrence's choice of moniker for his previous band, Felt (a major player in this genre, especially in the early days with Maurice Deebank) may have been a (sub)conscious allusion to this. Another component I "feel" is a sense of relaxation, again acknowledging Eno's "sense of emotional place." Many, though by no means all of the better Snorecore pieces are quite (and quietly) lengthy. This allows a song to develop and impart an emotion - typically one of calm introspection. The lyrical (in the sense of having words or lyrics) passages often describe the author's past or present dealings with a real event. Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval has confessed as much in a recent interview. In this regard, many of these songs may be biographical, yet generic enough that the listener can equate the situation with one from their own lives. Idaho (Jeff Martin), Red House Painters (Mark Kozelek) and American Music Club (Mark Eitzel) are particularly adept at capturing their emotions in song, with many RHP songs exceeding 6, 8 and even 10 minutes in length. In contrast, I should mention that Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins is a master at creating an emotional impact through her nonsensical vocal emanations (for lack of a better phrase!) One can't really call them lyrics - rather, phonemes or musical syllables resulting in her own language, which I refer to as "Coctese." Listen to Treasure for a perfect example.
Another, less immediately tangible aspect of Snorecore is the number of coed bands in its ranks. Cocteau Twins, Low, Mazzy Star/Opal, His Name Is Alive, Slowdive/Mojave 3, Drugstore, Bardo Pond, Galaxie 500/Damon & Naomi, Charalambides, Flowchart, Windy & Carl, etc. - all of these include females and most feature them as vocalists. This throws the "female perspective" into the presentation, allowing a deeper, more fully realized identification with the relationship angle of the lyrics - they're not all from the "man's point of view." Even when written by men, having a woman sing them expands a listener's interpretation, as with Slowdive, HNIA and David Roback's most recent bands, Opal and Mazzy Star (although, even Hope is now writing more of Mazzy's lyrics). Finally, to this asexual/androgenous aspect of the lyrics, male bands such as Luna and RHP have featured female vocalists on recent releases.
Before examining specific bands in detail, I'd like to point out two more features of Snorecore music which deserve attention: the instrumentation and the long instrumental (i.e., nonvocal) passages in most songs. Indeed, many records contain several lengthy instrumental only tracks. Many of the bands in this genre employ the standard bass/guitar/drums mix with little or no synthesizers. This strengthens the human (and, often existential) emotions of pain, loss, heartache and longing many of these songs address. In contrast to the bands which predominantly use synthesizers to elicit a sense of otherworldliness or detachment from the everyday pain and suffering in our lives, again showing the existential "krautrock" influence. Spacemen 3 and its myriad offshoots: Spectrum, Darkside, Spiritualized, etc., Stereolab, Stars of The Lid/Windsor for The Derby, The Azuza Plane/Spires of Oxford and Flowchart are some which immediately come to mind. This choice of instrumentation illustrates the bands' empathy to the human (as opposed to the industrial or mechanically generated) emotions. Sonically, long instrumentals (and instrumental sequences) allow the listener to reflect upon and float away (almost becoming one) with the artist in the studio.
At these slow speeds, melody seems to take a back seat to the overall tone/emotion of these pieces. Rarely will you find yourself humming a, say Low, Codeine, Idaho or Palace "tune" in the shower. And if you can understand Elizabeth's "Coctese," please forward a dictionary.
OK. We've examined the features of Snorecore. Let's apply this to the music. The following is a purely subjective list of my favorite Snorecore bands. Most of these groups (or at least key members) are still in existence and all of the suggested listenings should still be available, many on CD (for obvious reasons), the key format for maximum listening pleasure.
RED HOUSE PAINTERSFor my money, no one captures the pure essence of Snorecore better than Mark Kozelek does. Since 1992, the prolific Kozalek has written or co-written all of this San Francisco band's originals. From the debut, Down Colorful Hill, through this year's brilliant Songs for A Blue Guitar, RHP has released 5 CDs and one EP. While the songs on the 4AD disks are interchangeable (many having been written during the same highly inspirational period), they all capture the same feeling of sadness, melancholy and despair one would expect from any of Nick Drake's releases. Relationships (failed, Platonic, imagined) and an examination of one's value to society (frequently bordering on self-pity) are the key topics in most of the lyrics and Mark delivers them with such deadpan seriousness one can almost hear his heart breaking. Minor keys abound and the sparse instrumentation coupled with Mark's tendency to practically speak (as opposed to sing) the words puts you into the role of a psychiatrist listening to this poor, miserable soul's wretched tales of woe. The lengthy instrumental breaks on many songs allow one to sit back and contemplate the confessional lyrics, easily applying them to one's own similar encounters in life.
But don't be misled into believing these CD's are simply stories with rambling musical accompaniment. Mark has a wonderful gift for writing gorgeous melodies that stick in your brain long after you've forgotten the words. DCH's soaring, cynical title track ("where unadmired beings dread the new changes ahead"), along with "Michael," (the best song about a best friend you'll ever hear) and "24" (Mark's painful examination of his place in the world: "twenty four keeps breathing in my face like a mad whore") set the mood for what is to follow on subsequent disks.
The second and third releases (both titled Red House Painters and basically written together) expand Mark's fascination with his martyr complex and brilliant tunes such as "Grace Cathedral Park, "Katy Song," "Rollercoaster" and "New Jersey" (from the second disk) and "Bubble," "Helicopter" and "Uncle Joe" (from the third) capture the Painters at their best. A second, poppier version of "New Jersey" appears on the third release and this highlights another aspect of RHP that I enjoy. At least four songs have been issued in alternate versions ("Mistress," "New Jersey," the Kiss cover, "Shock Me" and "Song for A Blue Guitar") and this allows us to peer into Mark's creative process. Unlike other "alternate versions" that appear on other artists releases purely for economic and commercial gain (God only knows how many versions of "Round and Round" New Order issued, for example), each of the RHP re-interpretations elicit a different response and can be heard as a totally different song, setting different moods or capturing a different slant on the lyric.
Finally, speaking of reinterpretations, RHPs "covers" are among their best efforts, turning old chestnuts into totally new songs. "I Am A Rock" (from RHP 2) is slowed down to half speed and perfectly captures Mark's isolationism, while "Shock Me" (from the EP) and "Roundabout," the epic "Silly Love Songs" and "All Mixed Up" (from Blue Guitar) are barely recognizable from the originals. Here Mark twists and turns the tunes like Silly Putty, stamping each with his own image. It should be noted here that Blue Guitar was basically recorded with studio musicians (although RHP have not disbanded) and, as the first release on John Hughes new Supreme label, it begins to introduce a harsher, guitar based Neil Young fascination ("Silly Love Songs" would fit quite nicely on Rust Never Sleeps or Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere). The new sound is one of the factors in RHP leaving 4AD and it will be interesting to hear which direction Mark takes on the next release (there are purportedly some Neil Young covers in the can, possibly to be issued on a CD single).
LOWSince forming in 1993, this Duluth, Minnesota trio has released 4 full length (5 if you add the 14 minute hidden track to their 35 minute Transmission EP) CD's. The propensity to stick an "S" on the front of their moniker is understandable as soon as the laser beam picks up "Words," the first song on the '94 debut, I Could Live In Hope. Song lengths range from under two to nearly ten minutes and in between you will discover perhaps the best use of space in all of Snorecore. (In fact, the dedication on their second release, Long Division thanks the listener for their "patience and floorspace." Featuring alternating vocals from husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (Zak Sally, who replaced John Nichols on bass after "Hope" rounds out the group), Low specialize in creating haunting, late-night-in-front-of-the-fireplace atmospherics that take their sweet old time building to orgasmic crescendos before fading into the distance, sort of like a slow, comfortable screw. Sparhawk recently described their approach to huH magazine, saying, "We try to define ideas using the least amount of material." Parker adds, "The space between each beat seems like a lifetime."
Most of the lyrics describe everyday life experiences in the desolation of northern Minnesota. However, it's the music (and often, lack of it) that defines the Low experience. Often, the only thing you will hear is Mimi tapping on her cymbals or Alan meticulously plucking a single guitar string. Listening to a Low CD is synonymous with the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. In fact, this incredible tension may be what keeps most fans awake during the proceedings. Low's music would make a perfect soundtrack to a Hitchcock film. It perfectly embodies Hitch's classic definition of suspense: show a bomb under a table about to explode while the protagonists seemingly prattle on about nothing in particular. Your tendency to yell at them to "do something...get out" becomes unbearable. The same feeling accompanies most Low tunes. With limited lyrics and long...s-l-o-w instrumental breaks (many songs in their ouevre exceed six minutes, topping off with The Curtain Hits The Cast's "Do You Know How To Waltz" which clocks in at fourteen-plus), the propensity to yell out "do something" starts to well up inside you about the halfway mark. Either that, or you've totally lost track of what the hell they're getting on about. I would suggest, therefore, that the lyrics are secondary to the importance of the emotional impact of the music. They suggest a mood, a mental picture if you will, that the sparse instrumentation then picks up and carries off into the nether regions of your imagination.
Granted, it's not easy to sit through an entire disk of this stuff in one listening session. I've often caught myself doing the "junkie's nod" about three quarters of the way through each of their releases. Sometimes, a song gets so slow and quiet you may be tempted to relax, assuming it's over - only to hear a guitar chord or cymbal drift back in to remind you they're not finished yet! This is definitely not background music. It is a difficult and demanding, yet ultimately rewarding experience. The downside, as with RHP, is that the songs will tend to run together; that is, they are pretty much interchangeable among the 5 releases. However, once you've accepted the basic premise and understand what you're in for (i.e., a quiet, (s)Low evening of melancholic atmospherics that may result in catatonic stupor), Low will provide the perfect remedy to that rat race mentality we'd all like to leave at the office door on our way home to the spouse and kiddies.
Spacemen 3Perhaps the most popular and influential "snorecore" band (as evidenced by the recent tribute CD (Rocket Girl, 1998, featuring some of the best contemporary "snorecore" bands in the world), Spacemen 3 was formed in Rugby in 1983 by core members Jason Pierce and Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember who, among other things, share the identical birthday (11/19/65). Sound of Confusion (1986), their first release finds them floundering in a murky sea of unusual covers (Glen Campbell, 13th Floor Elevators and Iggy Pop) intermingled with interminable noisefests like "O.D. Catastrophe." Sonic's monotonic/catatonic vocals barely rise above the psychedelic sludge rumbling beneath him - the fact that all the songs sound the same doesn't auger well for the band's future. Sound of confusion, indeed! Fortunately, the follow up, The Perfect Prescription (1987) offers just what the doctor ordered. By turning down the guitars and introducing (and focusing on) organ-ic drones, S3 set the stage for the myriad onslaught of "snorecore" bands to arise in their wake. Proudly displaying their VU meters on their collective sleeves, the lads springboard from the Velvet's mellower moods ranging from Barrett-era Floydian space rock (Red Krayola's "Transparent Radiation") to downright theft ("Ode To Street Hassle" is merely new lyrics grafted onto the music from the old Lou Reed chestnut). The drug imagery is still in full flower lyrically ("Feel So Good," "Come Down Easy," "Take Me To the Other Side"), but the sound has switched to repetitive recitatives with effects pedals and whammy bars inducing hallucinogenic states seldom achieved sans illicit substances.
1989's Playing with Fire ups the lysergic ante even further. Somnambulistic vocals float amongst guitars filtered through more effects than a George Lucas epic all layered atop heavily echoed organ drones serving to lull the audience into dreamland. There's still only 2 or 3 chords clamoring to escape, but the constant repetition of those notes (altered only by the type of effect they're filtered through), numbs the brain receptors into swearing the record is stuck in some perpetual lock groove. The album's centerpieces, "Revolution" and "Suicide" sound like twin sides of the same coin, a sort of "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition which hones in on the same note and refuses to let go. One can't help but scream out, "When will this ever end?" whilst simultaneously adjusting the needle further along into the song. PWF lays the foundation for future S3 (and its innumerable offshoots/collaborations such as Spectrum, Spiritualized, Slipstream, Darkside, E.A.R., Jessamine, et.al.) releases by abandoning formalized Western "song" structure and concentrating on the "sound" of the music.
For their next venture, S3 unleashed the ultimate "snorecore" dronefest, Dream Weapon (1990). Tackling LaMonte Young's concept of "dream music" with reckless abandon, DW (variously subtitled "Ecstasy in Slow Motion" and "An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music") consists almost entirely of one monosyllabic tone droning on ad infinitum for nearly 45 minutes. Kember, Pierce and third guitarist Steve Evans alternately drift in and out with subtle variations on the theme, but it is not a "song" as much as an exploration of harmonies and the texture of sound frequency modulations. Somewhat reminiscent of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, DW forces the listener to reexamine their stereotypical concept of music as requiring a beginning, middle and an end. They're all here to be sure, just not necessarily in that linear order the Western mind has been trained to expect.
Spacemen 3's final release, Recurring (1991) is a posthumous half-baked effort that reeks of "contractual obligation." Jason and Sonic take a side each (recorded separately with no interaction) to do some creative housecleaning. Clearly looking ahead to future endeavors as Spectrum and Spiritualized, the half-hearted covers and aimless knob twiddling brings the final chapter of a once great band to a sad, depressing conclusion. To my knowledge, neither Spaceman has spoken or recorded with each other since.
As we enter the new millennium, many bands and artists have adopted this nonstructural approach to music. From Texas (Stars of The Lid, Windsor For The Derby, Pan American, Charalimbides, Twenty Six), Chicago (Tortoise, Jim O'Rourke, Joan of Arc, Loren Mazzacane Connors, The Sea & Cake, Isotope 217), Philadelphia area (Flowchart, Bardo Pond, Stone Breath, Azusa Plane, Spires of Oxford), Detroit (Windy & Carl, Grimble Grumble, Monaural, Fuxa) and all points in between to overseas cult faves Dead C, Roy Montgomery, Dust/Omit, Alastair Galbraith, Flying Saucer Attack, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine et.al. these artists have pretty much settled into the drone/"snorecore" groove and introduced the more adventurous, open minded listener into a realm that has totally restructured the experience of music interpretation and reception, taking Eno's concept of "ambient music" into the 21st century.
Jeff Penczak is a DJ at Centenary College radio station WNTI-FM (91.9). His biweekly program, "Dreamtime" features his favorite "snorecore" artists and can be heard in the northwest (Hackettstown) NJ (USA) area from 3:00-6:00AM every other Saturday. The curious, confused and irate are welcome to tune in via simultaneous webcast at www.wnti.org or e-mail him at email@example.com. For further discussion of these and other "snorecore" bands, the reader may want to join the Droneon discussion group by sending a "subscribe droneon [your e-mail address]" request to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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