It goes without saying that any mention of the term "shoegaze" immediately brings to mind the name of one band more than any other: My Bloody Valentine. Anyone with even a modicum of interest in alternative/indie pop music has no doubt at least heard of, if not heard, My Bloody Valentine's 1991 opus, "Loveless," an album that many critics and music fans consider to be the *definitive* shoegaze recording of all time and a landmark album in the history of pop music. Of course, all the critical and fan slobber is not without merit---"Loveless" is indeed a masterpiece, and in the horrifying possiblity that you haven't heard it, consider yourself officially ordered to drop everything you're doing and buy it right now!
But there is one problem with "Loveless." Yes, there actually *is* a problem with "Loveless." And that is this: MBV's musical apex has somehow succeeded in completely overshadowing several absolutely stunning albums of the shoegaze genre. I can't tell you just how frustrating it is to hear a music fan say something along these lines: "Well, as far as shoegaze goes, I have MBV's 'Loveless,' and since that album is clearly the benchmark of the genre, I don't need anything else or want to hear any other shoegaze albums."
This attitude makes no sense whatsoever. Imagine if this person had the same mindset about 60s guitar pop and only had "Sgt. Pepper" in his or her collection. That would mean this person would never hear "Pet Sounds," which is a frightening thought.
Well, let me just say this: If "Loveless" is the "Sgt. Pepper" of the shoegaze genre, than "Whirlpool" clearly is its "Pet Sounds." To put it succintly, "Whirlpool" is an amazing aural smorgasbord of swirling guitars, cascading keyboards, trancey and trippin' dance beats, atmospheric and angelic vocals, and waves upon waves of layered, ethereal effects that all add up to something that truly trancends the confines of pop music. And that's what is so great about it. Listening to this album in 2003, I am immediately reminded of the lack of imagination that is so prevalent in much of today's pop music. "Whirlpool" is the sound of four musicians pushing their talents and skills to the absolute limit.
There is almost a palpable feeling of urgency (as well as energy) on this recording, that stems from the excitement of breaking down sonic limitations that is very appealing.
Opening with the hyper-kinetic "Breather," Chapterhouse immediately establish themselves as a band with loads of inspired ideas, many of which are diametrically opposed to one another. And yet, as varying as these ideas are, the band somehow manage to coalesce these sounds into exciting music that gels completely. For example, "Breather" begins with an aggressively played, abrasive, yet still melodic, rock riff. On top of this riff we hear some very aggressive percussion in the form of almost violent-sounding tom rolls, cymbal crashes and a fast tempo. A lesser band would have seized these ideas and proceeded with an all-out 100% aggressive song complete with angry "shouts" or an aggressive vocal approach. But Chapterhouse goes in the opposite direction. When we finally do hear the vocals, it is a revelation. They are soft, gentle, yes, even beautiful. And the vocal phrasing itself is not fast, but slow---going in complete contrast against the aggressive backdrop of guitar and up-tempo drums. In addition, the sublime vocals are blanketed by some truly soothing sounding keyboards. From there we are treated to other interesting background sounds and effects, but you need to be a close listener to hear all of them. Repeated listens reveal that this music has been carefully written and executed---what initially seems just like indiscriminate background noise comes across later as being integral to the full spectrum of the band's sound.
While I love this album from start to finish, my absolute favorite track on here is "Pearl." It opens with a very unusual and distinctive chord melody played on a keyboard and then we hear a very cool sounding guitar come in and do an absolutely killer harmony part. Simply amazing. And from there, the track proceeds to mix some very interesting and quite groove-heavy dance beats with their trademark soft ethereal vocals and swirling guitars. Just a remarkable sonic achievement.
From this point in the album, Chapterhouse continue to gently sway back and forth between delicate, melancholic melodies and outright noise experimentation ("Autosleeper" is a perfect example of this).
I have to admit that it took me numerous listens to fully "get" this album, and even now, there are loads of little nuances that I'm still discovering. But because of this, I am always excited about going back and listening to this album again.
Recommended not just for fans of shoegaze, but for any music fans out there that are genuinely interested in sound experimentation, ambience, and some very nice melodies.