I wonder how many hours have been entertainingly wasted in arguments about the nature of certain pop music sub-genres (not to mention sub-sub and so on), and about whether this or that band belongs in this or that category. Shoegaze seems to me one of the more difficult to pin down, in part because it often involves very loud and heavily distorted guitars, which gives it a lot of potential for overlap--with metal, for instance.
Here are a few attempts at a definition. Wikipedia:
...characterized by its ethereal mixture of obscured vocals, guitar distortion and effects, feedback, and overwhelming volume....
Shoegaze combines ethereal, swirling vocals with layers of distorted, bent, or flanged guitars, creating a wash of sound where no instrument is distinguishable from another. The genre was typically "overwhelmingly loud, with long, droning riffs, waves of distortion, and cascades of feedback. Vocals and melodies disappeared into the walls of guitars."
It’s a particularly unusual genre in that its name describes neither a sound nor a connection to music history. This music is, above all else, a place to explore the outer limits of guitar texture. And emotionally, shoegaze turns its focus inward. The extreme noise eliminates the possibility of socializing while the music is playing, leaving each member of the audience alone with their thoughts. It’s music for dreaming.
Me, a few years ago:
I'll just say that in my mind the term implies very thick guitar textures combined with wistful and dreamy melodies and lyrics. Personally I lean toward the overlapping term "dreampop"; that is, the shoegaze I like tends also to fit the "dreampop" category.
My remarks are from a 2019 post about Pitchfork's list of 50 Greatest Shoegaze albums. I was familiar with maybe ten of them, and in spite of my professed intention to get acquainted with some of the others, I haven't done so. Too much music, too little time. Also too many books to read, too much writing to write, etc.
But wait: I did get acquainted with one, Catherine Wheel's Chrome. I was motivated because another Catherine Wheel album, Ferment, is one of my favorite rock albums of any style, and according to Pitchfork Chrome is even better. Ferment is #23 on their list, while Chrome is #9. If the latter is better than the former, I certainly wanted to hear it, and never mind the sub-genre label.
Well, according to me, it isn't. I like Ferment a good deal more. I first heard it quite a few years ago, before the turn of the century, on a tape sent to me by a friend who supplied me with a lot of good music over the years.
If I remember correctly, it took several hearings for me to warm up to it, but I soon grew to like it very much. The mixture of loud, noisy (there's a difference) guitars, tunes that took slightly odd turns and stuck firmly in the mind, and Rob Dickinson's unusual throaty and plaintive vocals were different from anything I'd ever heard. I don't think I heard the term "shoegaze" until much later. Here's the opening track from Ferment, "Texture":
On the other hand, according to my personal idea of shoegaze, #9 on Pitchfork's list does not even fit the category--not as a whole, anyway, though several songs do. It's hard rock, though without the bluesy flavor that's typical of the music that falls into that category. Some species of "alternative" or "indie" rock, of a pretty hard-hitting sort, maybe. And if obscured vocals are a defining characteristic of shoegaze, neither of these albums fits.
"Texture" is certainly loud, but it has some of that dreamy quality. The first track on Chrome, however, "Kill Rhythm," is not just loud but aggressive, with an angry edge (at least). "Texture" begins "Safe on the shore I've been sleeping." The first words of "Kill Rhythm" are "I want to fire a gun--show me."
Chrome is an excellent album, whether or not I think it should be called shoegaze. But apart from that question I still prefer Ferment. To my taste its songs, overall, are better. There are three or four tracks on Chrome that seem pretty lackluster to me.
The title track of Ferment is one of my favorites. Among other things, it has a very striking, even shocking, dynamic contrast: a pretty little tune that suddenly erupts into crushing noise. I know, that hardly sounds like a pleasant experience, but I like the effect. I kept thinking that the pretty part reminded me of something, some psychedelic thing from the '60s, and I finally realized the something was the live tracks from Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. Not the music alone, but the lyrics and the atmosphere as well.
There's a very, very brief warning that the noise is coming, a sort of buzzing or squealing, maybe something that happens when some effect is turned on. If you listen to this be a little cautious with the volume.
AllMusic describes Catherine Wheel's music as a "dark, hard-edged brand of noise pop"--not as succinct a description as "shoegaze," but more accurate. Both these albums were released in the first half of the '90s, and were the group's first. By the end of the decade they had released three more proper albums and broken up. I'm familiar with only one of that three, Adam and Eve. It's a rather different thing, more varied than either Chrome or Ferment, and at times going off in a very different direction. I definitely wouldn't call it, on the whole, shoegaze. AMG says it's
...greatly influenced by Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. So it's significant that Talk Talk's Tim Friese-Greene, who'd already produced Ferment and played on Happy Days, was called in again to play keyboards and ended up playing a major role in the album's sound, along with vaunted Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin
If you know those two Talk Talk albums, don't seek out this one hoping for something similar. I only heard that at a few points. But the comparison does suggest something serious and worth hearing, which I think it is.
Back in the first paragraph I mentioned the potential overlap between shoegaze and metal. There are in fact several (at least) bands who attempt to blend them, or have wandered back and forth between them. The one I'm most familiar with is a French group--mainly just one person who started out in black metal--called Alcest: "A dynamic Fench post-metal/blackgaze group strongly influenced by the British shoegaze movement." (AMG) How's that for a genre spec?
Don't be uneasy about listening to and watching this video; there is nothing of black metal at all in it.
I really haven't heard that much of them, and I'd like to. Too much music, too little time....