Oh, shoegaze. Does anyone have one of those genres that is, on paper, a perfect storm of everything they want to hear, but rarely seems to come together in the way they are dreaming of? That is shoegaze for me. That delectable blend of heavy soundscapes and lush melodies, dreamy textures and crushing volume, it’s got the potential to be so spectacular. But I so often feel like I am perpetually chasing unicorns. A band like Deafcult blessed us with some awe-inspiring tracks on their most recent record, but too often the record features jarring shifts in tone that leave it feeling uneven more than it does pleasantly diverse. Bound released a great record earlier this year, but despite some moments of brilliance, it’s not always as compelling as it clearly has the ability to be. In the past few years, the one release this side of Holy Fawn that consistently checked the highest number of boxes was Radiogaze, the debut LP from the St. Petersburg, Russia outfit Blankenberge. The only problem was the seriously lacking production on the record – in its mission to provide a dense wall of sound it too often sounded muddy and undercooked. It was probably THE recent album that I could cite that was in desperate need of a remaster, and thankfully for all of us Elusive Sound has taken the banner of cleaning up this otherwise wonderful release.
Accompanying the gorgeous cacophony of multi-layered guitars and the ever-present rumble of the rhythm section is Blankenberge’s ace in the hole, the otherworldly, ethereal vocals of Yana Guselnikova. They touch upon all the hallmarks of shoegaze and dream pop – whispery, soaked in reverb, seemingly swirling in and out of the stormy clouds of noise, but where other singers in this genre often fall short she has the power to emerge with striking immediacy and angelic presence. For a genre of music that is noted for its lack of clarity regarding the vocals, Guselnikova is able to burst triumphantly through the wall of sound when the moment dictates. The compositions transition effortlessly through influences ranging from the lush beginnings of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine to the more recent heaviness present in bands like Nothing and even The Angelic Process (on those moments where the noise hits its apex), but always there bringing everything together is Guselnivoka’s voice, which far exceeds what any of the aforementioned bands offer and may, in fact, be the ideal vocal complement to this musical form.
The Elusive remaster by Mikhail Kurochkin smooths out what was previously an over-compressed mix, while dropping some of the muddy low end and brightening the sound where it was needed. He also doubles down on the dynamics to ensure that the instrumentation is discernible rather than a foggy mess with blurred mid-range. The idea in the remaster was to allow the fuzz to play an important role as it was meant to, but to make the right adjustments to give the record the sound of a live performance on an expansive stage rather than a cramped basement. Now, buoyant tracks like “Somewhere Between,” “Out Cold” and “We” have the appropriate sparkle they desperately needed, whereas the more downbeat material like the album-closing “Not Enough” and “Hopeless” retain their shadowy, esoteric qualities while becoming considerably more listenable.
I have seen listeners and colleagues cite a wide range of tracks as their favorites from Radiogaze, but for me, the centerpiece of the album is “Falling Stars.” I’ve been loving this song for more than a year now, but in the past week I have been put in the position of having to part ways with someone I deeply love and care about, and while I won’t say it has taken on a new meaning, it has been a part of my renewed recognition of certain dualities, both in terms of music and life itself. “Falling Stars” is in many ways the most precise snapshot of the Blankenberge aesthetic. The first push of noise bears a kind of purposeful ugliness but tucked behind it is a soaring guitar melody that initially must be sussed out but eventually becomes intertwined with the fuzz surrounding it, ultimately forming an inextricable bond. There are very few songs I can think of that I feel perpetually inclined to rewind and re-experience whenever I listen to them. The climactic moments of “Red Hands” by The Dear Hunter, “Cygnus” by Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, “Goliath” by The Mars Volta and “The Pecan Tree” by Deafheaven are all tracks that inspire that. “Falling Stars” has entered that category as well. The entire composition works on a striking level – the soft-loud dynamic, the crushing barrier of sound attempting to enclose around Guselnikova’s vocals, the twinkling leads matching step-for-step with the hypnotically lilting rhythm section, but it’s that chorus that seals everything together. Rather than reach for other terminology, I’ll simply lay it out there: it’s perfect.
The fact that this chorus plays out only twice is the trick to bringing me back time and again. If I was left to my devices it would repeat 10 more times, but the restraint to let it make its mark in limited action is a stroke of brilliance, as it builds the anticipation of the listener and ensures its perpetuity in regular rotation. It’s like a siren song and a lullaby interwoven, the point at which all of Guselnikova’s towering potential as a vocalist comes together and absolutely blows the listener away. I am driven at least close to tears every time I hear it, regardless of my mood. It’s the kind of song that captures in a few moments the co-existence of sadness and hope, beauty and pain, how we can’t understand one without the other, how they lead us in tandem to new heights. Is there any better point of reference than a falling star – brilliance and beauty in what is seemingly death, with the understanding underneath that this phenomenon is, in fact, a bold statement of the life that is always burning brightly around us even when we are unable to see it?
Driving the other day listening to this song, my heart is torn and exhausted, the snowy landscapes around me seemed starker, but in the distance, the mountain peaks seemed to tower higher than they ever had before. I am a person who cannot separate from music; music lifts me through difficult times, it accents my joyous moments, it conjures memories and grounds me when I’m flailing. In special cases, music can hurt me and heal me in the same moment. It makes my tears feel like they have purpose and shows me the promise that still lies beyond the horizon. “Falling Stars” is such a song. It’s lived within my heartache and my happiness and will thus be forever tied to me. Not many bands have the power to create moments and connections like this and Blankenberge deserve much credit for entering that space, as well should Elusive Sound be credited for creating a more approachable experience for listeners.
Radiogaze set a record for Elusive releases in terms of how quickly it sold out, paving the way for the re-press that becomes available November 30. I can’t stress enough how integral a record this is to add to one’s collection. The future looks bright for this band, who should be seen as a primary guiding light for shoegaze artists everywhere.