It's official -- shoegazing is back. You can read all about it in various publications, and you can read it in the deadened, half-lidded expressions of everyone from Mogwai to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It's been scarcely ten years since this vaguely derogatory title was given to this predominantly English genre; an appellation that was soon transferred into bold font on the covers of dozens of magazines from the venerable NME to long-lost rags like Lime Lizard. During the late '80s and early '90s, it seemed like a musical change was surely going to come -- and this time it wore striped shirts. But to say it was some sort of underground force or blast of independent pop music would be adding unnecessary importance to a fairly widely exposed genre. Major labels brought most of the genre's key acts like Ride, Slowdive, and My Bloody Valentine into decent-sized halls across America. Tousled Anglophiles showed up in droves and watched these bands play alongside the Pale Saints and Chapterhouse. Groups created airbrushed sketches made with ink culled from Blue Cheer and the Jesus and Mary Chain, drowning everyone out with cavernous guitar assaults. Basically, it was loud music for people who hate loud music.
My Bloody Valentine's 1991 masterwork, Loveless, seemed to unwittingly provide the last stamp on the form. A feat of manic guitar complexity, brainbusting sound, and studio freakery, it's no wonder people like Ride and Slowdive slowly retreated back into the world of Dylan and the Stones upon its release. If you align this album's debut alongside the Britpop explosion and Nirvana's international punk-rock blowout, you've got a blueprint for the end of the flange 'n' fringe crowd. My Bloody Valentine managed to push every level of guitar manipulation to the limit. It's no surprise that guitarist Kevin Shields has barely recorded since -- there was nowhere left for him to go. In fact there was nowhere for anyone else in that field to go.
Fast-forward ten years and survey the landscape. Location: Denton, Texas, in the late '90s -- probably not first on your list when you think of cities populated by Britphiles. At a party, Texas native Josh Pearson was pouring New Orleans expatriate Andy Young a drink. "He gave me a beer in a martini glass," says Young. "I guess that was pretty much the beginning of the end -- drinking keg beer out of these really ornate martini glasses. We just started chatting about music, and then traded tapes and that sort of thing." Each discovered that the other was into My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, and the Pale Saints.
Once the musical priorities were fixed and agreed upon, Andy Young decided to become the drummer of the band now known as Lift to Experience. Pearson does most of the songwriting, vocals, and guitar playing, and Josh Browning provides the bass. In addition to a shared affinity for the hazy guitar pyrotechnics of Kevin Shields, both Young and Pearson also happen to be preachers' sons. They decided not to overlook that fact, and infused their new group with a sense of lyrical and religious fervor. They wanted to create a call to arms for the world, and got to work on making a concept album. The scenario was this: The end is nigh and everybody needs to get their asses down to Texas, because it's the new promised land. Led by Josh Pearson's pure, enunciated vocals and a medicated, elongated devotion to exploratory guitar sounds, the group set out to bring it all back home. It almost seems natural to fuse together Biblical prophecies with a wall of sound. As those who've spent time with Loveless on headphones can attest, music of this nature rarely seems mortal. Sometimes the blinding white heat of droning guitar squalls can do more than just rile up the neighbors -- play one chord long enough and a talking, burning bush will seem no different from your average tumbleweed. Perceptions tend to get altered in this state.
Enter the band's 2001 release, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. The album came out on ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde's Bella Union label in England. It's an amazing release -- it manages to wield feedback and beauty simultaneously. It's also an album that's not afraid to drop you off somewhere different from where you were picked up. There are definable choruses and verses -- it's not just the pure sonic attack of a band like Bardo Pond. It wants to be epic and rise up out of its rural surroundings. It's no surprise, then, that the group's success since this release has garnered write-ups and praise galore all over the United Kingdom, while enduring nothing but silence from the American press. "I think that the culture over there tends to look at rock music as more of an art form, instead of just the mindless sing-along while you're in traffic," says Young. "There are obviously sections of America that do appreciate things, but it's almost impossible to begin to get press here if you don't have a couple hundred grand behind you."
While there actually hasn't been any shortage of mindless sing-alongs shipped out from the United Kingdom, it's true that America has trouble digesting things that don't fall into specific categories. As openly enamored with the gauzy sounds of early '90s British pop as it may be, the group's album cover (three dudes, one cowboy hat, and an Americana-style font) could pass for a Nashville Pussy rip-off: Lift to Experience looks like they would come over to your house, break your Chapterhouse records, then steal your boots, your dog, and your girl.
And if you'd also be expecting murmured, unintelligible vocals, well, that's another mistake. Pearson's lyrical travelogues range from spoken narrations to beautifully sung passages and refrains. Key lines are repeated as the music spins off into the vortex. Some tracks run an average of six minutes, while others break the 28-minute mark. That's not to say that it's not ear-splittingly loud -- the group proudly takes the idea of a power trio into the stratosphere, evolving into something else with each show.
Now the band is on the road here for the first time, trekking through the homeland in a fifteen-seater van and trying to prove to the rest of the nation what Texas and the crowds at South by Southwest have already figured out. "We'll play once every four months in Texas," says Young, but the band had yet to tour the rest of America. "We've been all over Europe; we've been on the road seven months out of the year since the record came out. Apparently we're even doing quite well in Beirut," he laughs.
Underappreciated in their own country as they may be, LTE's musical style has been gaining momentum in indie circles for some time. Anyone with an ear close to the ground will tell you that washes of guitar and heady atmospherics have never really gone away -- in fact, the stuff is actually breeding like insects. Mogwai's monochromatic unpredictability provides equal parts genius and pretension, while Sigur Ros receives accolades for dishing out solely the latter. It seems you can't swing a guitar strap without knocking into some indie band perfecting the thousand-yard stare while digging into the different variations involved in the war of loud versus soft. "There does seem to be a bit of a revival in that sound right now," says Young. "On a mass scale, people weren't really ready for it when it came around the first time. If you listen to all of that stuff that's out today, from Coldplay on ... it's definitely influenced by that sound. It was almost a brand new art form back then. When people don't have anything to ease them into a record like Loveless, it takes really open ears. Now you've got this whole revival with Elbow, and maybe even people like us, trying to refine the sound."
It's hard to decide if Lift to Experience has actually managed to refine the sound, or if it has just taken certain aspects and used them as building blocks. It's as if the band has reined in sheer walls of carefully molded feedback from some faceless entity, then played them through a wide, Western scope like some John Ford film. The trio gives personality to the amorphous entity of cloudy noise-pop.
And if the inclusion of a religious theme seems silly or even pretentious, it isn't. It's probably the only lyrical theme (outside of sex or drugs) that'll match the sort of melting guitar noise that this band is capable of releasing. After all, many a great musical piece has sprung out of some form of religious fervor, whether it was embracing it or fleeing from it in terror.
Raised up on the power of blissful noise and the power of the biggest skies imaginable, Lift to Experience has managed to breathe some life into the music of its younger days -- but can a Texas-bred trio enamored with My Bloody Valentine and murder and salvation actually summon up the rapture? Hard to say, but if the stylized white noise harnessed and given form through the resolutely American imagery, thundering rhythms, and howling narration of Josh Pearson is any indication, divinity may not be so hard to grasp after all.
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