Return of the Suncharms

The band was part of the U.K.’s original shoegaze scene, and their 2021 debut album, Distant Lights, is one of the year’s best

by Marshall Bowden

Return of The Suncharms

The trajectory of The Suncharms very closely follows the arc of the shoegaze genre of which they were a part. Formed on a lark by school chums Marcus and Richard, the group picked up steam as they found a guitarist and started playing gigs in their hometown of Sheffield. A demo tape got into the hands of Wilde Club Records, home of The Catherine Wheel, and the band was offered a contract.

The Suncharms produced two EPs for the label, Sparkle and Tranquil Day in 1991. When those failed to take off, they went their separate ways in the early 90s just as better known shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Lush were flailing as well, abandoned by a music press that had dubbed Britpop the next big thing.

But shoegaze, a conglomeration of psychedelia, harder edged guitar rock, studio effects, and distant vocals, never really went away, and around 2015 or so it began to stage a comeback, particularly in Hawaii and Japan. Suncharms band members were noticing that their music was turning up on blogs devoted to more recent shoegaze bands, and that led to the compilation of their collected releases from the two EPs and some demos, as well as two completely new songs released in 2018. At the same time the band began to get together to play again, leading to a large group of new songs distilled into the band’s first LP release Distant Lights, just released in fall of 2021. 

Distant Lights has to be one of the rarest things in modern pop & rock music, which is a debut/reunion album that is released nearly thirty years after the group failed to record more than a couple of EPs worth of tunes and disbanded, left for dead on the roadside heap of bands that didn’t make it. Not only is Distant Lights an excellent record, it also demonstrates an advance in songwriting skill and in overall production of a studio sound that is reminiscent of the height of the shoegaze scene (they were there, after all). The Suncharms sound like a band that is ready for their shot, more mature than the material released on 2016’s The Suncharms compilation, but not in any way lacking in youthful energy.  

“It’s taken us three years to write the Distant Lights album” says Marcus Palmer during an internet chat. “We were meeting once a month and then lockdown happened. It’s been a slow process but we’ve embraced modern technology and are sending recordings and ideas to each other digitally so hopefully album two will be complete a lot sooner.”

From the opening reverb and echo laden fog of the title track to the gentle acoustic guitar touches on “Casting Shadows,” Distant Lights is a charming grab bag of indie styles that collided beautifully in the late 1980s and early 90s, so if shoegaze or dream pop or even jangly romantic rock are your bag, this is an album you’ll want to pick up at the group’s Bandcamp site. 

“Our sound has changed but is till described as shoegazey” says Marcus. “We have embraced new sounds and instruments as well as our nineties guitar pedals and new pedals. We have strings, brass, 1960s organ, and a melodica in the mix. The writing has changed due to being able to record at home, which means we can listen back to tracks, remix, change, and be more experimental, which you can’t do if you’ve just got a fixed time in a studio to record.”

Shoegaze strikes back

It’s not so surprising that many elements of the shoegaze sound have come back into vogue, and that the classic and underground bands of the era (1988-1995) have become popular with listeners who were born around the time the original scene peaked. The coy vocal style affected by many shoegaze vocalists, a cross of whispering and mumbling, has become de rigeur, employed by Billie Eilish and a zillion other bedroom artists. The mixes of most shoegaze bands placed the vocals immediately beneath a dense layer of guitar effect-laden sound, making it the aural equivalent of having hair hanging over one’s face, obscuring the singer from scrutiny while at the microphone (looking at you, early Michael Stipe). “Listen to me/don’t listen to me” indeed.

Shoegaze borrowed from jangly guitar pop (itself an outgrowth of 1960s bands like The Byrds), from psychedelic music, garage rock, punk, goth, and from classic period pop music. All of these influences have their hardcore fans, and they find the heady sounds produced by these bands to be the perfect listening for their lifestyle, their inner world vision. Some bands emphasize goth elements, others utilize basic Ramones-style pop constructs for their guitar effects symphonies, a few are more experimental, while some are heavily psychedelic. 

“In hindsight many of the bands already existed and were given the term shoegaze. They became popular because of the quality of the releases (e.g., My Bloody Valentine). I think there was a look back to the sixties for a lot of indie bands who wanted to give their sound a more experimental, psychedelic sound without sounding retro.”

While outsize attention has been given to godfathers The Cocteau Twins and Jesus and Mary Chain and most popular groups My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Lush, there is just as much (if not more) pleasure in hearing more obscure bands like The Suncharms, or Boston’s Drop Nineteens, a Caroline Records group on the fast track to success until they were beaten out by Smashing Pumpkins. Or “Ocean Run Dry” by Jane From Occupied Europe (the band, not the Swell album). 

It’s encouraging in many ways that the revival of the shoegaze sound and many of its antecedents is international. The techniques that shoegaze bands used in traditional studios are very adaptable to today’s artists who are often working out of a bedroom or other home work space using technology that is a combination of digital recording coupled with good old fashioned analog guitar and a pedal board. There is a strong shoegaze scene in Thailand, where bands like Death of Heather, Desktop Error, and Folk9 both honor and extend the previous generation’s shoegaze sound.

Some modern American groups like Ringo Deathstarr and LSD and the Search for God are strong contenders for the mantle of the new shoegaze sound and they demonstrate that the sound that arose in Great Britain in the late eighties has indeed found its tribe.

‘Guitar pedal industrial complex’

Not everyone is so enthralled by the rising tide of shoegaze and dreampop bands. Bikini Kill founder Tobi Vail started a Twitter war last month with her opinion that bands playing shoegaze were somehow complicit in trending fascism because they don’t use their music specifically to either protest or to educate listeners about political realities of the day.

“Can someone explain to me why people who play guitar have decided to revive shoegaze/dream pop and embrace dumb retro shit like Weezer in an era filled with violence, economic inequality, and abortion bans?” the punk rocker tweeted. “The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution.”

Which is not an unexpected take a punk and feminist icon. But it doesn’t make sense if you think it through. There is a seeming lack of traditional forms of overt protest music (of which punk rock is now one) these days, leading many to consider current popular music to be apolitical. But a lot of music these days assumes a stance that takes certain ideas about equity and diversity. Lizzo’s body positive attitude, for example, carries certain political implications, as does Taylor Swift’s ongoing battle with a music industry that devalues women and doesn’t respect artists’ rights. 

In addition, there is often a tendency for some artists to move inward and dwell there in the face of overt authoritarianism. According to Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania, shoegaze was in large part a reaction to seventeen years of conservative government. Punk had been an early reaction, morphing into post punk genres that included the diversionary shoegaze as well as rave culture. The rave and shoegaze scenes can both be seen as escapist, with sounds from previous and recent eras of popular music combined to create a cloud of sound that acted like a shield against the brutality of the day to day life. Ultimately, that sounds like a mode that allows people to survive times that may be less than fantastic, and that has a political and social value all its own.

In the words of Marcus Palmer, “Good music is timeless. The term shoegaze has now been embraced and reclaimed and seen as a positive term which wasn’t the case in the 90s when many critics and journalists used it as an insult. We are very happy to be described as shoegaze and appear on radio shows alongside teenage shoegaze bands from all over planet Earth.”

“What’s next for The Suncharms is to carry on writing new songs, and rehearsals so we can play songs from the new album live in 2022.”

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