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Genre School: Slowcore

by Johann M Smith / 19.01.2011


Slowcore was the first bitter pill of the 90’s. After the party that lasted three decades, a generation was left with the question: Now what? It sounded like a comedown. Slowcore is generally seen as a subgenre of indie, which peaked from 1989 to 1996 and then got lost in the generic sea of alternative rock. It was an antithesis to the mosh-pits, aggression, speed, cocaine and generally everything that seemed anti, on the up and inevitable in rock music. An alternative to alternative music. A provocation of grunge. It may seem feeble and weak now, but at the time it was a vital response and excited many music critics. Slowcore is still loved by a few, generally those who need reminding of what it means to live in an age where everything has been done.

Slowcore can be disputed as a genre, as slow two chord songs have always existed. There are countless examples from Hawkwind, The Doors, Vandergraaf Generator, The Only Ones and Joy Division. Traditionally bands always contain one slow song on an album. On slowcore albums everything is slow. The genre was best captured by Michael Azerrad who wrote a review of Codeine (one of genre’s forerunners) in a January 1992 issue of Rolling Stone magazine: “They are an antipower trio: three dissipated-looking young men who play slow, slow music nearly paralyzed by melancholy. At their show an eternity seemed to pass between their listless beats.”
Slowcore is synonymous with sadcore and often categorised under shoegazing, lo-fi and dreampop. And for that reason it suffers the same ill-fate as metal subgenres that become predictable and up-their-own-ass. Any dispute becomes a case of hair-splitting by music geeks.

Velvet Underground

Velvet Underground

To really understand slowcore is to understand it’s cultural ramifications and where the bands involved were in their heads. Slowcore’s roots lie in drugs and the ideas it holds so dearly are timeless. History teaches us that sitar players smoked opium and played the same chords over and over, transcending into a trance like state. “Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to” was the motto of Spacemen 3. Their stripped-down-psychedelic sound would have a great influence in the genre. The first slowcore sounding songs came from The Velvet Underground’s (VU) All Tommorow’s Parties; Heroin and Venus In Furs. VU’s drummer Maureen (Moe) Tucker would play standing up with an upturned bass drum, a snare and toms only, and as a result gave birth to slowcore’s token drone.

This would later influence Jesus and The Mary Chain . Using only two drums, distorted guitars and two bass strings. Another band that evocated VU and pushed the genre was Galaxie 500 and other notable bands to include: Slint and My Bloody Valentine.
However, it is important to note the difference between slowcore and two-chord blues (an early influence of hip hop). Unlike the blues, slowcore is not danceable. Like heroin, the high is constant with no sudden outbursts or climaxes.
Slowcore came in two waves. The first was a handful of bands from the US and England. Text book fans will know this stuff by heart: Codeine, Low, Idaho, Red House Painters, Bedhead and, if you’re a real hardcore slowcore fan, Bluetile Lounge.

All of them existed as a rebellion against grunge, and what it stood for. They detested distortion and fuzz. Guitars were generally clean and played with reverb to make notes linger. Drum strokes carried great weight with simple taps, booms and echoes.

Jets to Brazil

Jets to Brazil

As grunge reached it’s end in mid-nineties slowcore lost it’s charm. Low started to experiment with different sounds by the late nineties and other bands disappeared entirely. The second wave has come and gone in spurts, haphazardly, breathing new life into the genre. Jets to Brazil brought happier tunes while The Album Leaf Kept made it even sadder. Pedro The Lion made it cool by featuring on skateboarding videos of the time. Keeping true with the ‘movement’ the band wrote first person narrative lyrics with irony: “Bands with managers/Are going places/Bands with messy hair/And smooth white faces/But you don’t believe when I say/That you won’t be alright/Vans with 15 passengers are rolling over/But I trust T. William Walsh/And I am not afraid to die”.
By the end of nineties bands like American Analog Set changed the genre with songs like “Born on The Cusp” by settling for a mood rather than a sound thus ending the genre. The spirit of slowcore still remains in today in bands like Cat Power and Spirit If.

But descriptions (especially in the early years of slowcore) like: “tugs gently at the soul, rewarding the patient listener with sublime ecstasy” by Spin magazine, keeps it from being cool and it becomes an easy genre to insult. It is often given the designation snorecore.

In the end it was always a one trick pony that was happier sad. Not known. Anti-cool. An anticlimax. It’s a good sorbet to cleanse the palate between all the other shit you listen to. Especially on steak-knife Tuesdays. It remains one of the few genres that’s entire body of work you can enjoy within a week. And by the end of that week you’ll want to slit your wrists (and that’s a compliment).

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