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The Slowcore 90’s Genre
It’s been a while since our last investigation of the slacker decade, so I thought I’d try something a little different this time. Normally, I go painfully in-depth on a single artist. But ‘90s guitar music also saw the beginning of some interesting subgenres, one of which challenges every preconception we have about rock.
Slowcore is one of those annoying-but-useful terms used to classify a ‘90s underground rock phenomenon. Working in opposition to the aggression of hardcore and grunge, slowcore bands emphasized minimalism, soft dynamics and extremely slow tempos.
For the patient guitarist, this can be a highly rewarding listening experience. For the death metal fan, it can be infuriating. But regardless of your musical inclinations, it’s always a good exercise to hear your instrument used in different ways. Even today, slowcore remains one of the more unique guitar-based genres.
As Nicholas noted in his excellent article “Playing Fast Can Keep You Single and Songless,” a Low concert is a singular experience. At how many rock shows do you see a crowd sit and listen quietly?
Listen to a Low song, and you’ll understand that there’s really no other way to hear Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s tenebrous, minimalist music. If you let your focus shift for a moment, you might miss something important. The tempos are so slow that a rest is important as a note played, and every vocal harmony seems to carry some kind of hidden significance.
If I had to put it on a stylistic spectrum, I’d say that Low falls somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Steve Reich. But music like this defies such classifications. Give Things We Lost in the Fire a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
Bedhead’s music carries distinct traces of Galaxie 500, who are often considered the forbearers of slowcore. It’s clear that this Dallas band takes some of its musical cues from Dean Wareham’s dreamy atmospherics. But like Codeine, another Galaxie-influenced slowcore band, Bedhead’s music is more grounded in rock than pop.
Oh yeah, and they scaled back the tempo. A lot.
The result is a colder, more mature sound akin to Pavement on quaaludes. Bedhead carved out a delicious lo-fi chunk of indie rock that’s often overlooked, making it that much more fun to discover. Try any of their three studio albums; they’re all worth a listen.
Red House Painters
Probably the glummest of the bands in this article, Red House Painters are nonetheless worthy of your attention. Frontman Mark Kozelek is a songwriting mastermind, telling powerful and original tales of love, loss and memory.
One of the most interesting aspects of Kozelek’s craft is how it develops over the years. RHP’s first two albums verge on mopey at times, but later records show a subtler poetic touch and more elegant playing. The music released under Kozelek’s current moniker, Sun Kil Moon, features some impressive fingerstyle guitar work, particularly in Admiral Fell Promises.
The American Analog Set
If you think drone can’t be catchy, then you haven’t listened to The American Analog Set. This Austin quartet’s slow, protracted jams have a surprisingly bouncy feel to them. Were they sped up a few dozen BPMs, they might even be danceable.
This is due in part to jazzy, syncopated beats, as well as the band’s fervent commitment to repetition. The American Analog Set tends to repeat a simple, concise riff for a few minutes, until you can’t help but hum along. It’s a warmer, poppier, and more streamlined manifestation of slowcore.
For a great lesson in timing and precision, give The Fun of Watching Fireworks a spin.
Though not as melancholy as the other artists mentioned, Acetone’s music is no less languid. Where this druggy LA trio differed from the crowd was in its influences.
Their early work shows more of an alt-rock tendency, but most Acetone albums are steeped in Americana. Guitarists Richie Lee and Mark Lightcap aptly work the occasional slide lick into their sparse arpeggio riffs. It’s perfect music for those rainy day blues, as tender and desolate as any country ballad (though Lee’s crackly voice is a far cry from Glen Campbell).
If you want to hear some of Lee and Light cap’s impressive interplay, check out Acetone or If You Only Knew.
Duster was certainly the trippiest of the slowcore set. The band came to life in the late ‘90s, after slowcore had largely run its course, and their music is expectedly quirkier than that of their predecessors. Duster’s two albums are shrouded in a haze of tape hiss, exploring the most hushed, psychedelic recesses of innerspace.
There’s an impressive cohesiveness to these gritty excursions. The 17 tracks of 1998’s Stratosphere blend together as one continuous composition, partly because of the steady, hypnotic pace that the music adheres to. Using this and bleary lo-fi production, Duster evokes a cosmic ambience unlike any other.